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News / Northwest

Final push in Olympia for unemployment benefits for striking workers

By Jacquelyn Jimenez Romero, The Seattle Times
Published: February 29, 2024, 8:42am

OLYMPIA — The pouring rain didn’t stop hundreds of labor advocates from gathering in Olympia on Wednesday to call on the Legislature to pass House Bill 1893, which would allow workers on strike to access unemployment benefits.

“Corporate profits are going up, and working folks, well, we’re just struggling to keep up,” Washington State Labor Council President April Sims said in a speech.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Beth Doglio, D-Olympia, and 50 other representatives, passed the House on Feb. 12 with a vote of 53-44, with five Democrats joining Republicans in voting no. The bill now awaits action in the Senate. If it does not receive a floor vote by March 1, the bill will not advance.

“I actually think this will encourage employers to come to the table and negotiate in good faith and negotiate well with their workers,” Doglio said in an interview.

According to Doglio, strikes are usually the last resort for workers because they know they would be losing out, and they usually only happen when the employer isn’t bargaining in good faith. Labor advocates support the legislation because it would create a safety net for workers when they go on strike.

“There’s no credible strike threat if we’re going to starve to death, or lose the house over our heads in the meantime,” said Tom Bosserman, a Starbucks worker who helped organize a union in Everett.

Republicans and business groups oppose the bill, arguing the state’s unemployment insurance program is not designed to provide benefits when workers voluntarily go on strike.

“Providing striking workers UI [unemployment insurance] benefits tips the balance of a labor dispute in favor of the worker,” business lobbyist Carolyn Logue said in a public hearing on Feb. 2. “Right now, the system is balanced, with employers needing a workforce and employees needing a paycheck.”

Currently, when workers go on strike to negotiate for better wages, benefits or workplace conditions, the time they spend striking goes unpaid, leaving many to struggle paying for food, rent, bills and other expenses, Doglio said.

While unions have some funds that could help workers during strikes, they don’t cover a worker’s full wage. The money comes from union dues or the public.

Sometimes workers can’t access that money unless they are part of a national strike. Local funds could help some but local unions must get everything preapproved, making it hard to strike on a moment’s notice, according to Bosserman.

“It’s really important to level the playing field in an age-old problem where there is an imbalance between the workers and those who employ them,” Doglio said.

With this bill, workers on strike could get up to four weeks of unemployment benefits. However, they would have to wait 14 days to receive those benefits.

According to Doglio, these unemployment benefits would not cost any state tax dollars. It would come from a trust fund the state manages that employers pay into.

Analyzing past requests for jobless benefits in the state and data from New Jersey, which for the past two years has allowed striking workers to get unemployment, the state Employment Security Department estimated Washington could see between 812 and 3,470 additional claims per year if the bill goes into effect.

In the most dramatic example, ESD modeled what would happen if 30,000 workers went on strike — the number of Boeing employees in the International Association of Machinists’ District 751. If each person received the maximum unemployment benefit of $1,019 each week, for four weeks, the state’s fund would have to pay out $122 million.

Three states — New Jersey, New York and Maine — currently provide unemployment benefits for workers on strike. California passed a similar bill last year but it was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing cost as the biggest concern.

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