Diverse groups join labor in asking state legislators for worker relief package

SALEM - The Oregon Food Bank, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, laid-off workers and other community and religious organizations joined the Oregon AFL-CIO and Associated Oregon Industries (AOI) in calling for the Legislature to enact an Oregon Worker Relief and Economic Recovery Act when it meets in a special session Feb. 8 to shore up an $830 million general budget shortfall.

At a press conference in the State Capitol Jan. 24, the groups called attention to $87 million in funds available in the state's $1.7 billion unemployment insurance trust fund and another $55 million or more in surplus unemployment funds that Oregon is scheduled to receive from the federal government later this year, as the basis for funding their proposal without raising taxes.

"This money represents a win-win-win opportunity for Oregon," said AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt. "It can and should be used as soon as possible to help jobless families, boost our economy and generate more revenue for education and other state-funded services."

Richard Butrick, president of AOI, the state's largest business lobby, said tapping the trust fund - which is 100 percent employer paid - is the right thing to do.

"Using the fund to help unemployed people during economic difficulties is exactly the right use of the fund, and that's what this proposal does," he said.

At 7.5 percent, Oregon has the highest unemployment rate in the nation - with 129,500 people out of work. But the state's unemployment insurance (UI) system covers only two-thirds of those jobless workers. That number could drop further once extended benefits are exhausted. That leaves 44,500 of Oregon's jobless who are not collecting any UI benefits.

The groups' proposal would expand and improve unemployment insurance benefits on a temporary, one-year basis, from March 2002 through February 2003. Specifically, the measure would:

* Extend benefits to include part-time workers who have been laid off. Currently, employers must pay into Oregon's UI system, but these workers are not eligible unless they make them- selves available for full-time work. This requirement penalizes workers, disproportionately women, whose family obligations prevent them from accepting full-time work.

Cost would be approximately $23.3 million per year.

* Establish an alternative base year that make more workers eligible for benefits. Currently, eligibility for UI benefits and the amount and duration of such benefits are calculated on earnings more than three months prior to a layoff. A laid-off worker is not given credit for earnings during the calendar quarter preceding his or her separation from employment. This practice disqualifies some of the most recently hired workers from qualifying for benefits and reduces benefits for many others. By establishing an "alternate base year" for benefits calculations, the state would expand and improve benefits for workers with recent work histories.

Cost would be approximately $5.9 million per year in new claims and another $5.3 million a year in increased benefits.

* Add a one-time extension of benefits for an additional 13 weeks. Workers who exhausted their 26 weeks of basic benefits now qualify for an additional l3 weeks under federal law. However, these workers (estimated at l 2,000) will exhaust these benefits in early April 2002. Without a sudden improvement in the state's economy, many of these workers may still be unemployed after they have exhausted these additional 13 weeks. A second 13 weeks will carry them until mid-July 2002, when the economy is more likely to be on the upswing.

Cost is approximately $40 million.

* Increase benefits by $20 per week. A flat-dollar increase will help all jobless families, but will help low-income families most of all. A full-time, minimum-wage worker receives $166 per week in UI benefits. The average benefit is $250 per week with the maximum set at $400. Another $20 per week will help laid-off workers, especially low-income workers, feed their families while looking for new work

Cost is approximately $57 million for one year.

Supporters - which in addition to Ecumenical Ministries and the Oregon Food Bank, included the Oregon Catholic Conference, the Oregon Law Center and the Lewis & Clark Legal Clinic - noted that unemployment payments provide immediate and effective economic stimulus for the state economy, as jobless families spend their benefits for food, clothing and other necessities.

"This means we'll be pumping $130 million into retail purchases in our local communities over the next 12 months, which will accelerate economic recovery," said Nesbitt.

Supporters also noted that these payments, which are taxable, will generate almost $10 million in additional revenues for the state to address the state's budget shortfall.

"Which is something I believe the state could use right now," said Butrick.

"We believe the state legislators have a moral obligation to do what they can to help our neighbors who are out of work and are struggling," said David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

Leslie said an emergency food program it operates out of Redeemer Lutheran Church in northeast Portland is serving 1,700 people a month - a 55 percent increase from a year ago.

Ellen Lowe of the Oregon Food Bank said the Worker Relief and Economic Recovery Act "would provide unemployed Oregonians with a needed infusion of resources that will not only help them get by until they can be re-employed, but will ease pressures on local non-profit charities."

Combined, the proposed benefit improvements would cost approximately $131 million, leaving $11 million for implementation and contingencies, Nesbitt and Butrick point out. This money will be used to help jobless families, stabilize the economies of local communities and generate $9.7 million for the state's general fund.

If the Legislature doesn't act on the proposal when it meets this month, the money will remain in the UI trust fund.

February 1, 2002 issue

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