Just south of Weirton, Shannon Baldauf spends her work days suited up in layers of fire-retardant clothing, climbing atop massive, blazing furnaces that purify tons of coal.
“It’s a heat like you’ve never experienced,” she said.
But come this summer, Baldauf and nearly 300 others who work at the Cleveland-Cliffs coke plant in Follansbee will be out of a job. The plant is closing, and Baldauf isn’t sure what comes next.
“It’s definitely scary,” she said.
West Virginia’s unemployment system is meant for moments like these: to exist as a safety net for people like Baldauf who are unexpectedly between jobs. But while that’s the reality for Baldauf, 200 miles away under the Capitol dome, state lawmakers are advancing bills that chip away at that safety net by slashing the length of time workers can stay on unemployment benefits.
The rationale is that the move will push people into available jobs, though researchers have disputed the notion that unemployment benefits prevent workforce participation. And, the head of Workforce West Virginia, the state’s unemployment agency, couldn’t tell lawmakers if the changes would drive more people into open jobs. Yet, it hasn’t stopped the bill from progressing through the state Legislature.
The measure, SB 2, would tie the weeks of allowed unemployment benefits to the state’s unemployment rate and would reduce the number of weeks workers are eligible for unemployment to as little as 12 weeks. Benefits would max out at 20 weeks regardless of the state’s unemployment rate. The current maximum amount is 26 weeks.
But the changes lawmakers are contemplating — giving people like Baldauf a shorter time to access unemployment benefits — won’t make finding a new job any easier. While West Virginia has long had one of the nation’s lowest workforce participation rates, other states that have cut employment benefits haven’t seen a surge of workers fill jobs. And while the overall unemployment rate is at a record low, opportunities are limited in many counties.
For Baldauf, a single mother, there are few jobs in Brooke County where she can match her current earnings of $65,000 a year. Well-paying jobs in Brooke County are limited, even with a master’s degree like she has.
“Yeah, I could go out and work at McDonald’s if I had to, but that’s not going to pay all the bills,” she said.
If SB 2, which has already passed the Senate, becomes law, it would mean West Virginians have one of the shortest lengths of time eligible for unemployment benefits in the country. The benefits are currently capped at $424 a week.
“This isn’t a lot of money. It’s really difficult to live on, but it’s enough to keep people stabilized,” said Lindsey Jacobs, who is the Advocacy and Access Program Director at Mountain State Justice.
“Plain and simple, SB 2 is bad for workers and families,” she said.
Fewer West Virginia residents using unemployment benefits
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 12,000 West Virginians collected unemployment benefits at the beginning of this month — a historically low number since the state started reporting unemployment data in 1987.
Sean O’Leary, the senior policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said the data should be a “red flag” for lawmakers pushing SB 2 right now. The low number of unemployment benefit recipients shows there are other factors behind job vacancies, he said.
Only those in the workforce are eligible for unemployment benefits, O’Leary emphasized, and the bill does not address the barriers for thousands of other West Virginians who are not filling the open jobs.
Only a little more than half of the state’s eligible workers are in the workforce, according to Workforce West Virginia. The state’s low labor participation rate is driven by numerous factors, including a mostly elderly population alongside a lack of well-paying jobs, child care and transportation to better paying jobs that aren’t nearby.
Despite this, SB 2 wouldn’t address the hurdles residents face when seeking gainful employment; rather, the bill works on the presumption that unemployment benefits are the reason people aren’t filling the state’s current job vacancies.
Bill sponsor Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, did not respond to an interview request for this story. House spokeswoman Ann Ali said in an email that Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, lead sponsor of the House version of the legislation, “no longer wants to speak about this bill.” Takubo and Summers both hold leadership roles as Majority Leaders in their respective chambers.
But when the bill was introduced in January, Senate counsel J.A. Curia told lawmakers that he believed one goal of the legislation was to reduce unemployment benefits in an effort to drive people into the workforce.
“Is there any evidence from other states that reducing the benefit period is going to get people back to work? Sen. Michael Romano, D-Harrison, asked.
“I don’t have access to that data,” Curia replied.
Scott Adkins, director of WorkForce West Virginia, told lawmakers during a recent legislative meeting that he doesn’t have that data either.
“I haven’t seen [that cutting unemployment benefits would drive people to the workforce], other than some anecdotal evidence,” Adkins said.
Instead, Adkins pointed to school, daycare and business closures — all spurred by the pandemic — as the reasons behind the state’s workforce shortage.
Despite the lack of hard evidence, Adkins added, “I think this bill would help incentivize those folks knowing that their benefits are going to end quicker, they’re going to be more aggressive with their job search.”
Adkins also told lawmakers that his agency had not looked into how the legislation might impact the state’s welfare rates if employees are without benefits yet still unemployed; he noted that lawmakers had not asked him for this data while drafting this bill.
He declined an interview for this story.
Statewide bill wouldn’t factor in rural counties with limited jobs
Under the proposed legislation, the length of unemployment benefits would depend on the state’s unemployment rate. Benefits would be limited to 12 weeks when the state’s unemployment rate is 5.5% or below. An additional week of eligibility would be added for each half a percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, up to 20 weeks.
Senator Romano argued that the proposed indexing system would not take into account residents living in areas with high unemployment and limited jobs. In December, Calhoun County had an unemployment rate of 7%, the highest in the state, and well above the statewide unemployment rate of 2.9% (not seasonally adjusted) that same month.
Those regional differences wouldn’t factor into the proposed indexing system outlined in the legislation.
Republican lawmakers argued the bill benefits include reducing the drain on the state’s unemployment trust fund, which is funded by businesses and covers unemployment benefits. As a result, they say the bill would encourage the creation of more businesses.
“That unemployment tax is an inhibitor to business in West Virginia,” Takubo told lawmakers. “If we’re up here to create more jobs, we have to take that into account.”
But the fund is currently — and controversially — flush with federal pandemic relief dollars, though those tax reductions had a negligible effect on many state businesses.
Unemployment changes likely to hurt most vulnerable residents
Since learning of the coke plant’s impending closure, Baldauf has spent time clicking around on Indeed, an online job board.
Despite multiple degrees and experience, she hasn’t found anything nearby with a comparable salary. The coke plant owners have said they’ll offer a couple dozen jobs at the Weirton plant in the same county, but she doesn’t think she’ll get hired there due to seniority.
There are other young parents at the plant who will soon lose their jobs, she said.
“We probably won’t make that money if we stay anywhere close to here,” Baldauf said.
Though even if it becomes law the proposed 12-week limit likely won’t go into effect before Baldauf files for benefits, the idea of that truncated timeline “makes things more stressful,” she explained. “It’s not that long in the grand scheme of things.”
For Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, who has championed the bill, the number of unemployment weeks doesn’t make a difference.
“What’s magic about 26 weeks? Half of a year. It’s an arbitrary number that was picked by a previous Legislature,” he said.
O’Leary said the bill would likely hurt the state’s most vulnerable workers, including low-income, Black and disabled workers, who are more likely to struggle to find work. Some union workers have recently protested the change as well, arguing that they may only work seasonally, and 12 weeks isn’t enough time to learn a new trade.
SB 2 also looks to reduce unemployment benefit fraud by creating a more stringent claims review process. The measure is part of a pair of bills aimed at overhauling the state’s unemployment system. It’s companion, SB 3, would require unemployment benefits recipients to complete four work search activities per week. The legislation would also require the state to continue paying recipients if they take a part-time job while seeking full-time employment.
The Senate passed both bills Feb. 8. If the House ultimately passes them and Gov. Jim Justice signs them into law, the changes to the state’s unemployment benefits would go into effect at the start of 2023.
Mountain State Spotlight reporter Douglas Soule contributed to this story.