Unemployment benefit changes advance in General Assembly

Updated at 5:41 p.m.

LEGISLATION AIMED at getting people back to work and relieving business-hiring woes advanced in the R.I. General Assembly on May 11. / AP FILE PHOTO/PAUL SAKUMA

PROVIDENCE – Legislation aimed at getting people back to part-time work advanced in both chambers of the General Assembly on Tuesday.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, passed by a 35-1 vote. Earlier Tuesday, the House Finance Committee unanimously approved an identical piece of companion legislation from Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, sending it to the full House for a vote.

The bill intends to relieve some of the hiring woes expressed by many small-business owners, while creating incentives for those receiving state unemployment benefits to also get part-time work. 

As proposed, unemployment benefit recipients can earn up to 150% of their weekly benefits while still qualifying for state and federal unemployment aid – a 50% increase over the current cap on employment earnings for benefits recipients. The bill also increases the amount workers can make without being deducted from their weekly benefits allotment from 20% of benefits to 50%.

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The change would take effect on May 23, the same day the R.I. Department of Labor and Training intends to reinstate the work-search requirement for unemployment benefits, which was temporarily taken off when the pandemic hit.

In a prior interview with PBN, DLT Director Matthew Weldon, who helped develop the legislation making its way through the R.I. General Assembly, described the changes as a “win-win” for workers and employers alike. It could also help stop the drain on the state’s unemployment trust fund by increasing the amount of benefit recipients who work at least some hours, Weldon said.

About 90% of the 68,000 people collecting weekly unemployment benefits as of April were not working at all. Adding 2,600 people currently on full-time unemployment to reduced benefits and part-time work would be a “break-even” point. A greater number of people working part time would be a financial benefit for the state, Weldon said.

The bill also has the backing of Gov. Daniel J. McKee and a number of business groups and individual business owners, many of whom have cited increased unemployment benefits as reason for hiring challenges. Sarah Bratko, lobbyist for the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said in an interview with PBN earlier Tuesday that the legislation will be particularly helpful for the restaurant industry, which relies heavily on part-time and seasonal workers.

(This story has been updated to include passage of the Senate bill.)

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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