Scott Adkins, commissioner of WorkForce West Virginia, speaks at a Senate committee meeting last week. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

On Monday, lawmakers on the House side considered several bills aimed at helping the state’s massive teacher and school personnel shortages. But first, a bill to reduce the length of unemployment benefits and add work search requirements. 

Senate passes shorter unemployment benefits with required job search 

The West Virginia Senate is once again making an effort to reduce the amount of time people can access unemployment benefits and require claimants to prove they have taken specific steps to search for work. 

SB 59 would lower the maximum length of benefits from 26 weeks to between 12 and 20 weeks, depending on the statewide unemployment rate. If the unemployment rate is below 5.5% – it is currently 4.1% – claimants would only be able to receive 12 weeks of benefits. It also requires people getting benefits complete four “work search activities” each week, including going on interviews, applying for jobs or attending job fairs. 

The bill passed 27 to five, with two senators abstaining. In a Senate committee meeting last week, Scott Adkins, commissioner of WorkForce West Virginia, said the bill was necessary to ensure beneficiaries are actually searching for work. “A lot of folks, I hate to say it, beat the system,” Adkins said. His agency helped draft the bill. 

The legislation was proposed last year as well; the bill tying unemployment benefits to the state unemployment rate passed the Senate but died in the House on the final night of the 2022 session. A separate bill requiring work search activities passed the Senate but never made it out of committees in the House. 

“If we are in a situation where jobs and opportunities are plentiful, people won’t need as much time to search for work,” Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said at the time. 

Critics have argued the bill would disadvantage job seekers in small rural counties with higher unemployment rates. 

Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, was the only senator to speak against the bill. Caputo, who said he had received unemployment benefits at one point, questioned why the Senate gives generous corporate handouts while restricting benefits to unemployed people.

When it comes to workers, it seems like it’s a constant beatdown,” he said.

The bill now goes to the House. —Dan Lawton

Retired bus drivers, college students proposed to stem school staffing shortages 

Del. Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson, during a meeting earlier this session. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Worker shortages — both in and out of schools — were on the House Education Committee’s agenda Monday afternoon. 

House Education Committee member Del. Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson, told the packed committee room he’s heard reports of bus driver shortages forcing students to take multiple buses, and even have to sit on the floors.

This came as the committee moved to pass a bill introduced by Del. Christopher Toney, R-Raleigh, acknowledging the severity of the shortage and allowing former bus drivers to fill-in for an unlimited number of days after their retirement without affecting their monthly pension. 

The bill is substantially similar to one introduced last year that made it through the House and ultimately died in the Senate Finance Committee.

“I don’t know how many times is the charm, but I know this is three times it’s sat in front of me,” Clark said. “Let’s all do our best to get this through on the Senate side here this year. We all know there’s an extreme shortage.”

The bill passed the committee unanimously and will move to House Finance next. Its committee passage comes as the state faces a massive teacher shortage that lawmakers also hope to address this session; legislative leaders are also pushing legislation that would create new positions for hundreds of teachers’ assistants.

Along with the bill attempting to allow retired bus drivers to continue working through the staff shortage, the House Education Committee also moved legislation that aims to incentivize college students to enter careers facing similar worker shortages.

One such bill would create a four-year dual degree pilot program for students taking credits that would move them towards work in fields deemed understaffed by the Department of Commerce, such as direct health care, engineering and agriculture.

Yet another bill would incentivize graduate students to enter mental health careers in certain areas of the state facing care shortages. House Bill 2833 would create a working group to study mental health care shortages in West Virginia, ultimately creating and funding a program that would fund two new residencies and additional training that would count toward doctoral degrees in underserved parts of the state. State funding for students would be dependent on their agreement to serve identified mental health care deserts during that period. —Ian Karbal

Go deeper: West Virginia public schools are underfunded, understaffed and underperforming. Why?

Correction: This story originally incorrectly stated the vote count for the unemployment bill. It was 27 to five, not 25 to five. Two senators did not vote.