Kansas Unemployment Insurance Overhaul Advances

By John Celock

The Kansas House of Representatives voted Monday to advance legislation that would place new limits on unemployment insurance benefits, saying that it will help the state’s business community.

Preliminary approval was given to a bill that would place limits on the state’s unemployment insurance fund, along with capping weekly benefits to $474 a week, with a payment equal to 55 percent of the worker’s average weekly wages. The bill’s passage came after several unsuccessful Democratic attempts to amend it, including one proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage. Supporters of the bill said the changes will help the state’s business community by providing more certainty to unemployment payments.

“Kansas has one of the richest unemployment systems in the nation,” House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee Chairman Mark Hutton (R-Wichita) said. “This does not cut that. It flattens the curve to get us more back in line with what other states are doing.”

The House debate centered on a series of amendments adopted by the Commerce Committee, including the $474 max benefit and changing the payment calculation from 60 percent of a worker’s average weekly wages to 55 percent. Under the bill the $474 can be raised by the state Department of Labor in 2017 and in the future but could not go below.

Rep. Stan Frownfelter (D-Kansas City), the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, offered floor amendments to raise the payment back to 60 percent and to raise the max benefit to $500 a week.

Frownfelter said that the raise was needed to protect those in seasonal jobs and manufacturing jobs who would need the extra money. Democrats centered much of their debate in discussing layoffs among aviation employees in the Wichita area.

“We already lowered the number of weeks that they can get unemployment. We need to bring it closer to cost of living. Most of these people are seasonal people. A lot of them are lower income, they are not the higher end,” Frownfelter said. “I would contend to disagree with the previous speakers. Sixty is not a bad place to be. It could slow down a bit. This would not hurt anything.”

Republicans argued that the changes could potentially cause the maximum benefit to decrease in the state. Rep. Gene Suellentrop, who has been pushing unemployment insurance changes, told the House that the $474 would be a floor that the maximum benefit could not decrease in the future. He said that the $500 amendment could cause issues long term.

“The reason we did this is we wanted to set a floor of $474 a week. If we do this it is possible the floor could go down,” Suellentrop said. “That $474 a week is the 9th highest in the nation. It is higher than most states in our region.”

Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco), who authored the 55 percent amendment in committee, told the House that the unemployment insurance program could be hurt long term with a 60 percent amendment.

Suellentrop noted that under the bill the state’s unemployment insurance fund would be able to have a fixed system for the employer contribution rates, which will help the business climate. He explained that the fund is in the process of growing back to pre-recession levels.

Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) talked about the need to focus on those in the aviation industry. He said that the workers in the industry could be hurt by the cyclical nature of the industry.

“Unfortunately building airplanes is a boom bust business,” Ward said. “When it’s bad we have to keep those workers in Wichita and Sedgwick County. The way we’ve done that is through a solid unemployment system.”

Ward used the bill to propose an amendment to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.25 an hour. Ward has long been pushing legislation for the minimum wage hike.

“The carrier bill said that this is a business friendly bill.” Ward said. “I am going to make it more worker friendly. In my county we have 15,000 people uninsured or unemployed.”

The House Rules Committee ruled Ward’s amendment out of order saying that it was not germane to the issue of unemployment insurance.

House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) used his floor speech to attack Republicans saying that they want to help businesses in the state but not workers. He tied the issue into other issues, including a proposal from the state Department of Administration to shift classified civil service position in state government to unclassified positions. He said it is part of a partisan war in the state.

“We’ve given every possible break to businesses in the state. But employees who have been laid off we have not given a break. We’re going to fulfill our obligation to the fund by not paying you,” Burroughs said. “We continue to put bills forward that are said to be pro growth but they are vindictive and mean spirited. To assume that all Kansas workers are lazy and want to scam the system is disrespectful.”

Suellentrop said he took issue with Burroughs’ remarks, saying that the bill is one that will help workers and employers statewide. He said that partisan politics is not at play.

“This is not a partisan bill. This is a partnership bill,” Suellentrop said. “It is a partnership between employers and employees.”