‘A middle finger to hardworking Iowans’: Iowa House and Senate approve bill to cut unemployment benefits

Unemployment documents from the Iowa Workforce Development office. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

On Wednesday, the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate both passed versions of a bill that will cut unemployment benefits and is designed to force unemployed Iowans to take jobs that pay less than their former jobs more quickly than current law does. The bills passed both chambers with only Republicans voting for them.

Cutting assistance to unemployed Iowans has been one of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ top priorities for this year’s legislative session. In January’s Condition of the State speech, Reynolds boasted about “record-low unemployment,” before claiming enhanced federal unemployment benefits and stimulus checks during the pandemic had transformed “the safety net” into “a hammock.”

“[I]t’s a growing problem, and it’s not just an economic one,” she said.

“There is dignity in work; it gives us meaning and purpose. So when it’s degraded, when idleness is rewarded with enhanced unemployment and stimulus checks, when work begins to seem optional rather than fundamental, then society begins to decay.”

“I’m worried that we’re reaching that point.”

The governor, who ended the enhanced federal unemployment benefits at the first opportunity in June 2021, went on to describe an imaginary carpenter working alone “in the freezing cold.” The imaginary carpenter “needs help,” Reynolds said, but can’t hire any help because “too many are at home, living on his tax dollars. It’s been the same for almost two years now.”

The governor used her invented scenario of the lone carpenter working in the cold as a prelude to an announcement: she wants the legislature to cut the amount of time someone can collect unemployment benefits almost in half, from six months to three and a half months.

Reynolds said her imaginary carpenter “has faith in Iowa,” so legislators should “show him that Iowa does care” by cutting unemployment benefits.

The governor called the 26 weeks Iowans can currently collect unemployment benefits — 39 weeks if a worker loses a job because the business or factory they worked at shut down — “more time than necessary.”

“I’ll be introducing a bill that lowers benefits to 16 weeks — about four months — and ensures that those collecting unemployment can’t turn down suitable jobs while living on taxpayer funds,” Reynolds said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers the 2022 Condition of the State speech, Tuesday, Jan. 11.

HF 2355, both the version the House passed and the amended version the Senate passed, does that. It also cuts unemployment benefits for those out of work because of a business or factory closing from 39 weeks to 26 weeks.

The bill also requires people to accept job offers that pay less than their former jobs after one week of receiving unemployment benefits. Currently, the law doesn’t require Iowans to take jobs that pay less until the sixth week of unemployment benefits.

Republicans pushing HF 2355 on Wednesday didn’t use the words “hammock” or “idleness,” and didn’t invoke imaginary carpenters. Instead, the bill’s floor manager, Republican Rep. Michael Bousselot of Ankeny, said it was about addressing the state’s workforce shortage, as well as improving Iowa’s unemployment system and shoring up the trust fund that provides its benefits.

“It’s about filling key jobs that are open. It’s about ensuring that a vital benefit for unemployed Iowans stays available for unemployed Iowans,” Bousselot said during the four hour-long floor debate on the bill in the House. “As amended, this would give a modern mission to Iowa Workforce Development and our unemployment system, focusing on re-employment, on new skills and new abilities so our workers can fill the modern jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Democrat Rep. Chris Hall of Sioux City immediately pushed back against those claims.

“In my opinion, that is the most polite and soft way that you can tell the public they’re about to get screwed,” Hall said. “Is the solvency of the unemployment trust fund at risk? No. And nobody’s buying the governor’s rationale that garbage policy like this will have a positive economic impact. It’s not going to address the workforce shortage.”

As the Des Moines Register pointed out, according to the latest state report, the unemployment trust fund is now larger than it was at the start of the pandemic. As of March 1, the fund stood at $1.37 billion.

Other Democrats pushing back against the bill were equally as blunt as Hall.

“This bill that we have before us today is a middle finger to hardworking Iowans,” Rep. Liz Bennett of Cedar Rapids said during the debate.

“Why are we punishing people who are fired through no fault of their own and looking for work?” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights asked. “By cutting them off and thinking that will get them back to work?”

“This is short-sighted, this is mean, and this is wrong.”

HF 2355 passed the House 58-37. Two Republicans joined all the House’s Democrats in voting against it.

The Senate amended HF 2355 to delay the beginning of unemployment benefits by one week. That delay is necessary to ensure unemployment claims aren’t fraudulent, according to bill floor manager Sen. Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig.

“I would ask, at what point is there enough fraud and at what point can we not step in and seek to limit that fraud to the smallest amount possible?” Schultz asked his fellow senators. “The one-week waiting period would do that.”

The amended bill passed the Senate 30-20. All the chamber’s Democrats and two Republicans voted against it.

The Senate vote on HF 2355, March 23, 2022

The two versions of the bill will have to be reconciled before HF 2355 can be sent to the governor for her signature.

Unions are strongly opposed to the bill, and somewhat ironically given Reynolds’ attempt to justify the benefit cuts with a story about an imaginary carpenter, unions representing the building trades have been particularly vocal. Their members often rely on unemployment benefits when weather conditions cause a halt in construction projects.

Opposition to the bill isn’t limited to union members, according to an Iowa Poll published by the Register last week. Fifty-three percent of respondents opposed the cuts, while only 38 percent supported them.

If Reynolds signs the bill into law, Iowa will become one of only five states that provides less than 20 weeks of unemployment benefits.

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