Advocates For Low-Income Ohioans Fight Back Against Unemployment Compensation Plan

Jan 11, 2016

Perhaps the most controversial issue on Capitol Square to start the New Year is how to deal with unemployment benefits. There’s a bill that makes several changes but opponents say it makes employees shoulder most of the burden.

When a company goes through an overhaul or takes an economic hit, it can be assumed that layoffs could be right around the corner.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt with the Ohio Association of Foodbanks says anyone who’s lost a job through no fault of their own knows all-too-well the instant panic that sets in.

“They know that horrible dread of knowing ‘how am I going to pay my bills,’” Hamler-Fugitt illustrated.

That’s why the state has the unemployment insurance fund, to act as a safety net for workers and their families, according to Hamler-Fugitt. The foodbanks are part of a collection of health and human services groups known as Advocates for Ohio’s Future, who are saying proposed changes on the horizon for the unemployment compensation fund could drastically flip the script on workers.

There have been concerns about how to shore up the fund, which ran out of money paying jobless benefits during the recession and had to borrow about $1.6 billion from the federal government. 

Republicans have proposed House Bill 394, which would cut the maximum amount of time a laid off worker could receive compensation from 26 weeks down to 12 weeks. The length of time could go up depending on the unemployment rate.

The bill also cuts benefits to workers with dependents -- in other words, the additional help for laid off employees with kids.

Mark Davis is president of the Ohio Provider Resource Association. He says this puts the bulk of the burden on labor.

Mark Davis, Ohio Provider Resource Association
Credit Andy Chow

Davis said, “In an economy where more working families are standing in food lines, HB394 hurts working Ohioans and their families by severely limiting the unemployment benefits available for those who lose a job.”

Hamler-Fugitt says doing away with benefits to people with dependents will only drive more families into poverty.

“Meaning that they will end up much more quickly in our food lines and are potentially at risk of losing their housing and becoming homeless and it will cost us ten-times more money to try and restabilize these families and get them rehoused,” said Hamler-Fugitt.

The leader of this change is Republican Representative Barbara Sears of the Toledo area, who strongly objects to these claims. She says the bill will make Ohio’s unemployment insurance solvent.

Ohio still owes the feds about $770 million from the money it borrowed and is on schedule to pay that off next year, but Sears says her plan will make sure the state will never be put in that position again.

As for the idea that the bill would place more burden on the employees, Sears notes that workers don’t pay for Ohio’s unemployment insurance fund -- it’s completely backed by employers.

Rep. Barbara Sears (R-Sylvania)
Credit Ohio House of Representatives

“They have been picking up the tab for quite a bit because it wasn’t the right time for us to look at reducing benefits now, however, unemployment is at an all-time low and has continued to be there -- now is the right time for us to look at the unemployment benefits and look at the employee side," said Sears. "Since [2004] all we’ve been doing is saying to the employers is ‘pay more, pay more, pay more.’”

Sears disputes the argument that her bill would slide more people into poverty.

“It has never been designed to be a livable wage. It was never designed to be anything other than a stop-gap insurance program while people got themselves another job,” Sears said.

She adds that the average time it takes for a laid off Ohioan to find another job is about 8-16 weeks, putting her change to cut benefits after 12 weeks right in the middle.

Sears believes her proposal could get a full House vote by the end of this month or the beginning of February.

The advocates arguing against Sears’ plan do admit that a change is needed. But they say this bill should be scrapped and a whole new plan should be crafted using a wide-collection of input, including employers, labor and other human services groups.