Oregon Legislature passes unemployment extension

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed two bills March 24 that will extend unemployment benefits to Oregonians still looking for work.

Senate Bill 637 passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. It allows Oregon to use $225 million in federal funds to extend unemployment benefits for 20 weeks. Nearly 50,000 Oregonians will be eligible to receive the additional benefits by the end of the year.

SB 638 passed the Democratic-controlled Senate 26-4 and the evenly split House (30 Democrats and 30 Republicans) by a 49-9 margin. The bill taps $26 million from the State Unemployment Trust Fund to extend benefits for six additional weeks. This money will go to an estimated 17,500 Oregon workers whose benefits would otherwise expire this month.

Both bills were supported by organized labor.

State Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie), a union representative of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, gave an impassioned speech on the House Floor in favor of the bills.

Witt said he was moved to speak after remarks from opponents of the bill who questioned the willingness and ability of unemployed Oregonians to find work, stated that many lack the skills necessary to earn a job, referred to unemployment checks as handouts and speculated that some recipients of unemployment benefits are drug users.

“I represent a district which is by-and-large rural and working class in nature,” Witt said. “The people who live there define themselves as individuals, define their own personal dignity and define their family heritage as workers and working class. If there was work to be had, they would be doing that.

“It is not a matter of not wanting to work,” Witt continued. “There is simply not enough work for those who want it. That is why we have an unemployment system, and I am grateful for those of you who support it.”

Last month, 9,800 private sector jobs were added to the Oregon economy, but the unemployment rate still lingers above 10 percent statewide, and in the high teens in many rural counties.

“Although we are on the path to economic recovery, there are thousands of Oregonians who are still struggling,” Kitzhaber said. “Extending unemployment benefits is a lifeline to people in need right now.”

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