A dispute between Washington state Republicans and Gov. Jay Inslee over the state's reopening strategy has threatened to slow unemployment benefits to some jobless workers and raise costs for some employers.
Earlier this week, state Republican leaders, frustrated over Inslee's restrictions on restaurants and other businesses, refused to extend several of the governor's emergency measures, including ones that hasten payment of unemployment checks and reduce some employers' costs.
As a result, jobless Washingtonians who apply for benefits starting Sunday may wait an extra week for their first benefit checks and may also miss one of the $300-a-week federal payments Congress authorized in December. Employers, meanwhile, could see higher costs for a SharedWork program that has compensated workers whose hours have been cut due to the pandemic.
Republicans' actions, which come just days before Monday's start of the state legislative session, drew sharp criticism from labor leaders and from Democrats.
"I think it's very damaging to people who are trying to get their unemployment benefits," said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, who noted that job losses due to the pandemic are again on the rise. "I don't understand the choice on this one, at all."
But state Republican lawmakers said they refused to extend Inslee's emergency proclamations partly to pressure the governor over a plan to reopen businesses closed or partly closed by COVID-related restrictions.
The decision was "largely driven by frustration with the governor over the continued shutdowns of restaurants and unwillingness to have a discussion with us and with the hospitality [sector] and find a way to get them at least partially back open," said state Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia.
The dispute comes on the eve of a legislative session widely expected to be contentious as lawmakers and the governor address a state battered by 10 months of pandemic and a deep recession.
The fight also reflects the narrowness of political options of Republicans, who have minorities in both the state House and Senate.
Emergency proclamations can be extended only with unanimous agreement from leaders of both parties in both chambers when the legislature is not in session. Until now, that consent has allowed multiple extensions for a variety of emergency proclamations.
Among these was a proclamation that let the state use emergency federal dollars to pay for the SharedWork program. As of Jan. 2, nearly 100,000 workers at 3,700 employers were enrolled in the program. Without the proclamation, Washington must charge employers for using SharedWork.
Another emergency proclamation removed the state's so-called waiting week for jobless benefits. Ordinarily, state law requires unemployment claimants to wait a week after filing a claim before receiving their first payment — in part to let the state Employment Security Department (ESD) verify the claimant's identity and work history.
But under the federal CARES Act, enacted last March, Congress agreed to pay unemployed workers for that first week if states waived their waiting-week requirements, which Inslee did in March via an emergency proclamation.
Because of the waiver, unemployed Washingtonians often could get their first benefit check within three or four days after filing a new claim, instead of 10 or 11 days. Without the extension of emergency proclamation, however, new claimants will again have to go a week without state benefits — and they also won't get the $300 federal payment for that week, ESD officials said.
That prospect drew sharp condemnation by labor advocates, who noted that layoffs are likely to worsen during the winter. "This is just leaving money on the table that would be helping people during a crisis," said Joe Kendo, government affairs director with the Washington State Labor Council.
Last week, Washingtonians filed nearly 30,000 new claims for unemployment benefits. As of Dec. 26, 281,328 people in the state were receiving benefits.
Until this week, Republicans had been loathe to touch Inslee's unemployment proclamations, and instead had joined their Democratic counterparts in repeatedly extending both the SharedWork and waiting-week measures.
But Republicans said they decided to withhold consent as a way of objecting to Inslee's recent extension of business restrictions and his plan to slowly reopen businesses based on public health data — a plan some Republicans think is flawed.
Braun said he and other Republicans told the governor's staff that "if you're just going to extend [restrictions] again without any clear path to get reopened, then we were not going to extend any proclamations."
Braun also said many Republicans objected to Inslee's increasing reliance on executive orders instead of legislation to address the pandemic. "We've been very reluctant to push back on individual proclamations," Braun said. "But our frustration with being marginalized by the governor is growing."
Republican tactics drew a rebuke from the governor's office. "Look, if legislators want to express their frustration — we are very open to hearing it (and have ... and will continue to)," said Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee in an email Friday. "That's reasonable. However, if they are using their frustration with the governor to essentially hurt Washingtonians by denying them things like benefits for unemployed workers ... then, that is hugely problematic."
Republicans said their objections weren't just tactical. Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, said lawmakers were also concerned that waiving the waiting week had given the ESD less time to scrutinize unemployment claims for issues such as the identity fraud that resulted in the theft of $600 million last year.
Bringing back the waiting week "gives ESD time to vet the claim ... so we don't have so many backlogged or fraudulent claims," Mosbrucker said.
State House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, who formally declined to extend the waiting week proclamation, did not respond to requests for comment.
In theory, lawmakers can end the impasse over unemployment benefits by enacting legislation that turns the emergency proclamations into state law. Senate Democrats intend to introduce such a bill early in the legislative session.
But it's not clear how long that process might take or how long newly jobless workers might have to wait an extra week to get benefits or miss out on the $300 federal benefit. Jinkins said one question is whether Democrats decide to address the waiting week issue with a stand-alone bill or as part of a larger measure, which can more easily get bogged down. But, she said, it also "depends on ... how Republicans engage on them and things like that."
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