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OLYMPIA, WA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed the first bill of the 2021 legislative session.
The bill, SB 5061, is part of the state's COVID-19 recovery plan and focuses on bolstering and upgrading Washington's unemployment system.
"We know that this pandemic has caused sweeping economic hardship for workers and businesses and this bill is a big step forward to softening those impacts," said Inslee.
Firstly, the bill raises the floor for minimum unemployment payments. That change will go into effect starting July 1 and, according to an analysis by the Tacoma News Tribune, will increase the minimum weekly benefit from $201 to $270 for the lowest income bracket.
“SB 5061 recognizes that for many workers, the minimum benefit doesn’t meet the needs of themselves or their families, and by providing a modest increase, the Legislature will put more money in the pockets of the people who need it most,” said Joe Kendo, government affairs director for the Washington State Labor Council.
Lawmakers crafted SB 5061 with the support of Washington's Employment Security Department (ESD), which handles unemployment benefit claims for the state. The bill will also tweak their system to allow for a more "nimble and responsive" reaction in future public health emergencies, according to the governor's office. In particular, they say it will be easier for high-risk residents and their family members to receive unemployment benefits, even if they quit their jobs.
Acting ESD Commissioner Cami Feek says the bill will continue their work to help struggling Washingtonians.
"Work has already begun so that we can provide tax relief to employers before their next payment is due in April. As we progress, we’ll communicate directly with employers, so they have the information they need for their 2021 tax payments," Feek said.
Secondly, the bill cuts an estimated $1.7 billion spike in unemployment taxes for Washington businesses. It does this through two actions. One cancels all individual benefit charges for unemployment claims made between March 22 and May 30, 2020 - that's when the state saw the largest single spike in unemployment claims due to the governor's “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order shuttering all but the most essential businesses. The bill also caps certain tax rates through 2025.
Supporters say they hope these changes will help Washington businesses as they struggle to rebuild the floundering economy.
“This legislation is a first step in the right direction and will significantly reduce the increase in unemployment insurance taxes facing Washington employers because of the pandemic,” said Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business.
SB 5061 was sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, but passed with bipartisan support in both chambers.