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GOP Lawmaker, Once Unemployed, Seeks to Reduce Benefits

Rep. Russell Webber (R-Shepherdsville)
LRC Public Affairs
Rep. Russell Webber (R-Shepherdsville)
Rep. Russell Webber (R-Shepherdsville)
Credit LRC Public Affairs
Rep. Russell Webber (R-Shepherdsville)

About 20 years ago, a distribution company went out of business and Russell Webber lost his job, forcing him to rely on unemployment benefits until he could find something else.

Now, as a Republican member of the Kentucky legislature, Webber has sponsored a bill to cut those unemployment benefits, reducing the weekly rate and shortening the amount of time people can receive them.

Webber, who says he now works as a state lawmaker full time, said the changes will encourage people to find work faster. People in Kentucky average close to five months of unemployment benefits before they find another job, which is among the longest duration in the region, according to Katie Houghlin, director of the Kentucky Division of Unemployment Insurance.

Kentucky's unemployment rate in December was 4.4 percent, the eighth-highest of all the states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Houghlin said Kentucky has more than 200,000 open jobs. In the last six months, she said, the average wage of new jobs accepted was more than $18 an hour.

Webber's proposal would cut unemployment benefits to 1.05 percent of a worker's total base wages, down from 1.32 percent. Benefits would stop after 20 weeks instead of 26 weeks. State officials could increase that cap back to 26 weeks during an economic recession.

But people would get more money for the first five weeks of their unemployment. After that, payments would decrease the longer a person stays unemployed.

"We front load the bill to help folks as a buffer against that initial layoff. They've got additional money coming in, they've got five weeks to go through that process," Webber said. "I think it's a fair bill."

House Bill 317 has the support of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, whose vice president of public affairs, Ashli Watts, called it "a carrot approach" to encouraging people to seek work.

That offended Democratic state Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson, who said her husband lost his job in the fall and had to receive unemployment benefits.

"I am offended that you make the assumption he needed a carrot dangled in front of him to find a new job. Believe me, this went nowhere near covering the costs that we normally would have," she said. "This is trying to push people into taking a lesser job than they would be able to find otherwise."

Houghlin said while people like Stevenson's husband are the majority of people who receive unemployment benefits, "the statistics show that something is missing for our state." She said people have 26 weeks of benefits available each year. If someone has intermittent layoffs, they can come in and out of the program as needed. But with people staying on the program for an average of 19 weeks, "there is nothing left if something were to happen again."

"We've got to get people engaged more quickly," she said.

Dustin Pugel, a policy analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said Kentuckians are not abusing unemployment benefits, as just one out of every five unemployed Kentuckian receives them. He said the bill amounts to a 20 percent cut in benefits.

"That is putting salt in the wounds of laid-off Kentuckians," he said.

Copyright 2019 WKU Public Radio

Adam Beam | Associated Press