Unemployment bill becomes first Washington bill signed into law in 2021

Feb 8, 2021, 3:10 PM | Updated: 3:38 pm

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Gov. Jay Inslee. (Governor Inslee's office)

(Governor Inslee's office)

An unemployment bill has officially been signed into law, marking the first bill to get the governor’s autograph this year.

“I’m signing Senate Bill 5061 very happily,” Governor Jay Inslee announced, as he added his John Hancock to the bill. “We just made some good law in the state of Washington.”

Touted by legislators as a helping hand to small businesses, the bill passed both the House and the Senate late in January with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The bill lowers the immediate unemployment tax hit on businesses, spreading those tax increases out over the next five years instead. The total relief from taxes amounts to about $1.7 billion.

Unemployment bill passes House, headed to governor’s desk

“This will provide critical relief to businesses that would have otherwise experienced a really significant spike in their unemployment insurance rates as a result of the COVID-19 emergency,” Inslee stated.

The Unemployment Trust Fund, which pays out benefits to unemployed people, is filled solely by the unemployment taxes that business owners pay based on each person they employ. After a year of record unemployment and a fraud attack draining the fund, the taxes had been set to skyrocket.

“We know that this pandemic has caused sweeping economic hardship for workers and businesses, and this bill is a big step forward toward softening those impacts,” Inslee said.

Inslee alluded to the more than $100 million in grants he had already set aside for small businesses at other points in the pandemic, and hinted that there would likely be more coming in the near future.

The unemployment bill also raises the minimum weekly unemployment benefit from 15% to 20% of the average weekly wage, and it allows people to collect unemployment if they are high-risk or live with a high-risk family member and cannot work from home.

Sen. Karen Kaiser (D-Des Moines), one of the bill’s sponsors, thanked lawmakers from both parties for coming together during an emergency to pass the bill quickly. With unemployment taxes due in April, passing the bill was a race against the clock.

“This is going to not only address a really immediate crisis for so many of our businesses, but it will also build a good solid bridge to the future so that we maintain a healthy trust fund and are able to continue to pay benefits,” Kaiser said. “And it isn’t just numbers we are talking about — it is real people, tens of thousands of people who are unemployed, and thousands of business owners who were facing really high increases in their unemployment taxes.”

Her Senate Labor, Commerce, and Tribal Affairs Committee colleague across the aisle expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s a great first step,” said Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima) to Governor Inslee. “I think there’s more work to do, and the good senator [Kaiser] and I have talked about how we might be able to continue to aid our businesses. I look forward to those discussions and doing more, but thank you today for signing this bill.”

King’s words were in reference to the concern expressed by some Republicans that the bill would only postpone the tax pain for workers instead of relieving it for good in the coming years. However, Kaiser had said during the hearing that she would be open to finding other means of refilling the Unemployment Trust Fund, such as using state dollars instead.

Employment Security Department Acting Commissioner Cami Feek said in a statement that they were already working on getting the tax paperwork changed for businesses and having the higher minimum weekly benefit ready to go by its July 1 start date.

“On behalf of Employment Security Department, I want to thank Governor Inslee and the Legislature for prioritizing this critical relief and support for Washington’s employers and unemployed workers,” she said. “This is the first bill Gov. Inslee has signed into law this session, indicating just how important it is to the economic health of our state, and we’re committed to delivering the changes in Senate Bill 5061.”

Business community leaders also expressed happiness over the bill’s passage after it was signed.

“When the pandemic hit, our hospitality businesses were shut down, which forced thousands of businesses to lay off team members. When they received notice that their Unemployment Insurance rates would increase by 500% or more because of those involuntary layoffs, it only added to the mounting debt many operators are facing,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, in a statement. “This bill will help to alleviate that rate increase. We are thankful to the Legislature and governor for working quickly to make this happen. We look forward to continuing to work together on legislation to help Main Street businesses and their hundreds of thousands of employees.”

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Unemployment bill becomes first Washington bill signed into law in 2021