Business finds jobless fix, shifts to labor

Friday, April 25, 2003

The Olympian

After years of bickering, factions in the Washington business community have agreed on a fix for the state's unemployment system.
Their proposal could reduce or eliminate benefits for thousands of workers, especially seasonal workers in agriculture, retail, logging and construction.

But it's far from a done deal. The business proposal is just a starting point, lawmakers said Thursday. Now, the real negotiations with labor begin.

No one seems to expect a quick solution to pass in both the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, saying that balancing the unemployment system to satisfy everyone -- big business, small business and the unions that represent their workers -- will take longer than the current legislative session, which ends Sunday.

"This is the foundation. Actual negotiations have not begun," said Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma. "Labor has not been involved, and that has to happen." Bills on unemployment issues move through the House Commerce and Labor Committee, for which Conway serves as chairman.

Washington has one of the most generous unemployment benefit systems in the country -- some business leaders say too generous. Workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own are eligible for as much as $496 a week, for as long as 30 weeks. Washington's system is the second-most expensive in the nation, according to the Association of Washington Business, in terms of average per-worker cost to employers. Employers pay for 100 percent of unemployment benefits; their tax rate is based on how many employees they've laid off in the past.

The proposal floating around Olympia now brings together Boeing, small businesses, retailers and the building industry -- factions that until recently had fought bitterly over the right way to reform unemployment taxes and benefits.

The inequity in the unemployment system is one of Boeing's No. 1 complaints about doing business in Washington state -- something lawmakers are acutely aware of as they compete against other states and countries for Boeing's new jet project, the 7E7.


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