July 21,2020

Wyden Introduces Legislation to Reform Unemployment Insurance

Bill would incentivize states to ensure worker safety, expand, modernize systems

Washington, D.C. – Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today introduced legislation to incentivize states to reform their unemployment insurance systems. 

The Worker First Act would authorize $10 billion to be distributed among states that take steps to ensure worker safety, as well as expand and modernize their unemployment insurance systems. 

The bill is cosponsored by Senators Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Ed Markey D-Mass., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.,  

“This once-in-a-century economic crisis has exposed the shortcomings of our safety net, and Congress must address them,” Senator Wyden said. “Unemployment insurance was created in the 1930s, and the program is in urgent need of reform to address both short- and long-term issues. State unemployment insurance systems in particular were not equipped to deal with the challenges workers face in a modern economy, or ensure worker safety in the midst of a pandemic. To start down the path of reforming the unemployment insurance system, I will push to address these issues in the upcoming coronavirus relief package.” 

 1. Worker Safety 

  • To receive the worker safety allotment, the state must enforce laws, policies, or regulations that ensure: 
    • Work is not considered to be “suitable work” under state law unless the work is in compliance with all applicable health and safety guidelines and standards related to the prevention of occupational exposure to COVID–19, including such guidelines and standards issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, under State plans approved under section 18 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Federal, State, or by local public health authorities. 
    • An individual is not disqualified from regular unemployment compensation if they separate from employment because the workplace is not in compliance with these health and safety standards.

2. Modernization

  • To receive the modernization allotment, the state must have laws in place to ensure that:
    • An individual is not disqualified from regular unemployment compensation for separating from employment if that separation is for any compelling family reason, including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and harassment; illness or disability of an immediate family member; or the need to accompany their spouse due to a change in location of the spouse’s employment.
    • An individual is not denied unemployment compensation solely because such individual is seeking only part-time work. 
    • The state’s definition of “suitable work” includes health and safety considerations that ensure that a position shall not be deemed suitable for an individual if the circumstances present any unusual risk to the health or safety of the individual.
    • The state uses a base period that includes the most recently completed calendar quarter before the start of the benefit year to determine eligibility for unemployment compensation (sometimes called an “alternative base period”).

3. Expansion

  • To receive the expansion allotment, the state must have permanent laws in place provide that:
    • The state administers a short-time compensation (work share) program.
    • The state provides at least 26 weeks of regular unemployment compensation benefits.

The bill text is available here