TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators and a powerful business group are pushing a proposal to make it harder for unemployed Kansas workers to get extended benefits, arguing that extra weeks of aid are available even when thousands of jobs remain unfilled.
But the proposal before the GOP-controlled Legislature has sparked a backlash amid the economic uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, and Democrats see it as hurting struggling workers at exactly the wrong time. A key Republican lawmaker conceded Friday that it will be difficult to include the measure in broader legislation designed to overhaul the state's troubled unemployment system.
A 2013 state law, enacted under then-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, ended a policy of providing up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits to jobless workers and instead tied eligibility for more than 16 weeks of benefits to the unemployment rate. Separate but identical bills before the House and Senate commerce committees require a higher unemployment rate for the extended benefits to kick in.
"In this time right now, that's probably a pretty tough one to keep in," said Senate committee Chair Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican.
The 2013 law says that when the state's average unemployment rate for three months is at least 4.5% but less than 6%, jobless workers can receive up to 20 weeks of benefits, and when the average is 6%, they are eligible for 26 weeks. Both the House bill and the Senate measure would allow 20 weeks of benefits when the unemployment rate averages 5% and 26 weeks when it hits 6%.
House committee Chair Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican, is confident that it will retain the provision in its version of the unemployment bill. That measure would also set up a council to oversee a modernization of the Department of Labor's unemployment computer system and require the upgrade to be finished by the end of 2022.
"The idea is to get people back into the workplace, as soon as possible," Tarwater said Friday.
Backers of the change include the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which is especially influential with GOP lawmakers. Supporters said this week that an unemployment rate at or below 5% signals an economy with full employment and one in which businesses have trouble finding people to fill openings.
"If our state's at full employment, below 5%, then we should be at our lowest tier of unemployment benefits," said chamber lobbyist Eric Stafford.
But economists are debating what actually represents full employment. In its most recent economic projections, the Federal Reserve has pegged 4.1% as what is likely full employment, but Chair Jerome Powell and others clearly think it can go lower. Powell has said that the experience of the past few years, when unemployment nationally fell to a 50-year low of 3.5% without spurring inflation, shows that what is essentially full employment is at a lower jobless rate than in the past.
Meanwhile, some Democrats see the Kansas proposal as tone-deaf.
"It's bad optics," said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, of Overland Park, the top Democrat on the House commerce committee. "We need to show sympathy for people who are losing their jobs."
The state's unemployment rate spiked at 11.9% in April 2020 and averaged 9.7% for the second quarter of last year. But in the last three months of 2020, it averaged about 4.6%, and from 2015 through 2020, it averaged 4.1%, according to state Department of Labor figures.
Also, the Kansas unemployment rate remained below the national rate for the past six years, even when it spiked last year.
Ty Dragoo, a lobbyist for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers in Kansas, told the Senate committee that the proposed change would cost jobless workers weeks of benefits.
"That is not a very good idea at this juncture," he said.
AP Political Writer Chris Rugaber in Washington also contributed to this story.