Friday, May 22, 2020

Legislature Passes Bill to Provide Relief and Improve Access to Unemployment Benefits

The Massachusetts Legislature on Thursday May 21, 2020, passed a bill that will provide additional Unemployment Insurance (UI) relief to low-income families, non-profit institutions and employers. The legislation now moves on to the governor.

An Act Providing Additional Support to Those Affected by the Novel Coronavirus Through the Unemployment Insurance System builds on UI legislation already signed into law that waived the one-week waiting period to receive benefits.

“From the outset of this public health pandemic, our focus has been on easing the burdens felt by working families, and this thoughtfully crafted bipartisan legislation exemplifies that commitment,” stated Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “With this legislation, we are taking steps to ensure Massachusetts workers and employers can maximize the benefits available to them through state and federal actions. I am thankful to my Senate colleagues as well as Speaker DeLeo and his members for their work in moving this legislation one step closer to becoming law.”

“This bill protects employers, including non-profits, and workers as we deal with the economic crisis in the wake of COVID-19,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “I thank Chair Michlewitz, Chair Ferrante, Vice Chair Hay, Senate President Spilka, and my colleagues in the House and Senate for their work on this important UI Bill.”

“With the passage of this bill, the Senate is building on its commitment to support the workers and business owners of the Commonwealth who are struggling with the financial impacts of COVID-19,” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D- Westport), Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Ways & Means. “I applaud my colleagues in the Senate and the House for continuing to work collaboratively to provide relief to the state’s most vulnerable citizens during this challenging time.”

“Unemployment benefits are a critical lifeline in an economic storm and the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of having a sound unemployment insurance system that responds effectively to people depending on it,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R- Gloucester). "The measures contained in this bill will go a long way to strengthening our system and helping individuals and families when they need it most.”

The legislation builds off the legislature’s ongoing efforts to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its impact on workers and follows the passage of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which significantly increased UI benefits and expands eligibility during the coronavirus pandemic.”

"Clearly, Covid-19 has presented many challenges to the Commonwealth. Chief among them are protecting residents from a potential life threatening virus, financial ruin and hunger. In Massachusetts and across the country, we have seen unparalleled levels of unemployment,” said Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies (D-Gloucester). “As our residents try to navigate an enormously difficult health care and economic crisis, this unemployment legislation allows the Commonwealth to work more effectively with the business and non-profit communities by streamlining unemployment regulations and mitigating costs while simultaneously tending to the needs of residents, who may require additional time to return to work."

“The economic fallout from the COVID-19 global pandemic has been devastating, with over one million Massachusetts residents filing for unemployment and businesses struggling to survive. This bill takes additional steps to assist residents and employers impacted by the pandemic,” said House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones, Jr. (R-North Reading). “It allows for a four-week extension in benefits if new unemployment claims filed in any week exceed 100,000, and lays the groundwork for lifting the dependency cap. It also protects employers from being penalized and hit with rate increases if they are forced to lay off workers due to the pandemic. This bill will help families and businesses as we continue to navigate through this unprecedented public health crisis.”

The components of the bill are as follows: Protection for Employers. Employers who participate in UI pay contributions based on their layoff experience. Like other forms of insurance, employers that are more likely to have workers use unemployment compensation are asked to pay more in the system. The system does not anticipate a situation where employers across a number of sectors have been forced to significantly reduce their workforces due to situations outside of their control. This bill prevents layoffs related to coronavirus from negatively impacting employer’s future UI contributions.

Extending Unemployment Benefit Period. The number of weeks of unemployment compensation available in Massachusetts is tied to unemployment rates around the state. This trigger did not anticipate a situation, however, in which unemployment grows rapidly in a very short period of time. This bill ensures that the 30-week benefit period is triggered by a significant uptick in weekly unemployment claims.

Lifting the Cap on Dependency Allotment. This bill eliminates the 50% cap for the dependency allotment providing additional benefits to low-income families. This increase will be in addition to the $600 per week benefit add-on provided for in the CARES Act for all workers eligible for state or federal benefits. This provision is effective for 18 months after the end of COVID-19 emergency and the end of enhanced federal benefits.

Currently, UI recipients are entitled to an additional $25 per week for each child in the family, capped at 50% of a recipient’s base allotment. The result is that workers with particularly low allotments, such as low wage workers, can easily be capped out of receiving these additional amounts.

Non-Profit Contribution Grace Period. Presently, many non-profits self-insure for unemployment claims. This means that when layoffs in the sector occur, non-profits pay the cost of those benefits dollar for dollar at the next billing period. This bill provides a 120-day grace period for non-profits to make these contributions. This delay will allow the state to review additional changes that are warranted to mitigate the impact on non-profits. The CARES Act provides 50% reimbursement for self-insured benefit payments during the Coronavirus crisis.

An Act Providing Additional Support to Those Affected by the Novel Coronavirus Through the Unemployment Insurance System now moves to the governor for consideration.