Politics & Government

Cuts to Kentucky unemployment benefits trashed as bill advances in General Assembly

A proposal to overhaul Kentucky’s unemployment insurance program has been stripped of two controversial provisions that would have cut benefits for out-of-work Kentuckians as it progresses through the state legislature.

In its original form, House Bill 252 cut the number of weeks people could collect unemployment insurance and froze the maximum possible benefit a worker could receive.

But in order to get the bill through the House of Representatives, Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, cut out four pages that contained those two provisions, gaining bipartisan support for the bill in the process.

The latest version of the bill was approved by a Senate committee Tuesday and now goes to the full Senate for a final vote before being sent to Gov. Matt Bevin for his consideration.

Only State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, voted against House Bill 252, according to committee chairwoman Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington. The bill would, among other things, provide an upgrade to the technology system for unemployment insurance.

“Upgrading the system is a really good thing and it’s long overdue,” said Dustin Pugel, a policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Unemployment insurance is a joint federal-state program that helped 95,000 Kentuckians offset their lost wages after getting fired last year. If someone loses their job for any reason other than misconduct, they’re eligible to receive a portion of their paycheck for a set number of weeks.

In Kentucky, the average benefit is $322.48 a week and people are eligible for up to 26 weeks.

The only portion of the bill that still makes some labor advocates wary would lift the minimum income a person must have earned in their previous job to qualify for benefits, from $750 over the previous three months to $1,500. Starting in 2020, the threshold would increase every two years based on inflation.

“We’d rather not see that change, but it’s not the biggest problem in the bill as it was previously written,” Pugel said.

The biggest fear for advocates is that the change will shut low-wage and part-time workers out of benefits. But according to testimony on the bill in the House, increasing the minimum would only affect a few dozen people.

“Some really low wage workers will get shut out, but it’s a lot less harmful,” Pugel said.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics