Bills would give unemployment benefits to strikers


Washington state lawmakers are considering a proposal to make striking workers eligible for unemployment benefits.

Senate Bill 5777 and its companion, House Bill 1893, would allow striking workers to receive unemployment insurance if they spent more than two weeks on the picket line. The bills would also make workers who are locked out by their employer during another union’s strike eligible for benefits, no matter how long the lockout lasts. Similar laws already exist in New Jersey, New York, and Maine. A bill to provide unemployment benefits to strikers also passed the California State Assembly last year but was vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom.

In hearings Jan. 9 on the Washington bills, representatives from Teamsters Local 117, United Auto Workers Local 492, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367, Starbucks Workers United, and Association of Flight Attendants testified in support.  The legislation is backed by the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the federation that represents more than 600 labor unions in Washington.

Labor Council President April Sims said strikes are a powerful tool for workers fighting for fair wages and working conditions, but walking off the job involves risk and sacrifice. Striking workers can lose their income, their health insurance, and their pension credits while they are on the picket line. Sims said those sacrifices are particularly harmful to low wage workers, who might not have savings to help replace their lost paychecks.

“This bill would provide partial wage replacement — a safety net — to help workers meet their basic obligations like housing and food while fighting for their rights at work,” she told lawmakers in her testimony.

SB 5777’s chief sponsor is State Senator Karen Keiser, a Democrat from Des Moines, who is a member of SAG-AFTRA and a former spokesperson for the Washington State Labor Council. HB 1893’s chief sponsor is Beth Doglio, a Democrat from Olympia.

“Strikes are an absolute last resort. … They have big repercussions,” Doglio said Jan. 9 when she introduced her bill. “The biggest repercussion is that it causes significant financial burden on employees and our communities. Because of that, low wage workers in particular don’t have the ability to exercise their right to strike. Employers know this, and … some employers build their bargaining strategy around the evictions of employees’ families.”

The Association of Washington Business and other business groups oppose the bills. Business lobbyists testified that extending benefits to striking workers could threaten the financial stability of the trust fund that pays for those benefits by increasing the annual cost of unemployment payments. They also said it would unfairly “tip the scale” of bargaining in favor of workers.

The Employment Security Department, the state agency that oversees unemployment benefits, says the agency usually spends about $110 million per year on unemployment benefits. It estimates that adding striking workers would raise annual payouts by $9 million to $14 million.

Teamsters Local 117 Vice President and Legislative Director Brenda Wiest called that a “nominal, negligible impact” to the trust fund and said it’s justified because it would bolster workers in their fight for fair contracts. As it stands, employers can drag out negotiations for years before the NLRB adjudicates complaints about bad faith bargaining, she said.

“I have personally led or walked on the picket line of dozens of strikes, and they have all been unfair labor practice strikes where the employer violated labor law,” Wiest said. “Until we recalibrate labor law, workers have an unlevel playing field and cannot go against the major corporations they are employed by.”

The Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce voted on Jan. 17 to send SB 5777 to the Senate Rules Committee. The House Committee on Labor and Workplace Standards was set to review HB 1893 in an executive session on Jan. 19.


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