Legislators must focus on working families

April 1, 2009 | John Burbank

Reprinted from the Everett Herald

The big banks have just gotten another steroid injection from the federal government, courtesy of us, the taxpayers. The feds want to make sure that the private banks which got us into trouble will not go bankrupt. So we are left holding the bag for these banks’ losses, while creating “private” profits for them. It is only another $100 billion of our money to “kick start” this latest bail-out of the “too-big-to-fail.”

How about those of us “too-small-to-matter”? Hundreds of thousands of Washington residents are losing their health insurance, falling behind in mortgage payments, defaulting on college debt. What happens when these personal catastrophic events happen not just to someone across town, but to entire communities? Then these millions are indeed “too-many-to-fail,” unless we want to slide into a true depression.

We built social insurance systems like unemployment compensation just for this reason. We didn’t want our fellow workers wiped out and forgotten. Today it might be our neighbor. Tomorrow it might be us. Unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, the Basic Health Plan… These are all programs developed through state government to insure us against economic events over which we have little control. Right now, it is these bulwarks of security that hold back disaster.

So you might think that our state Legislature and the governor would be intent on reinforcing these programs for basic economic security. Well, keep dreaming… The folks in Olympia are focused on whether to completely eliminate the Basic Health Plan or just cut off half of its participants. The governor actually ordered the Employment Security Department to cease implementation of family leave insurance.

Now the Legislature seems eager to take away $1.5 billion from the employment security trust fund over the next six years and give it to business. Senate Bill 5963 has already passed the Senate and is working its way through the House. This would be a permanent insurance premium decrease, not just a temporary measure for the recession.

The legislation does have one important benefit to workers. It restores benefits to 50 percent of wages, as was the policy before 2004. This one provision will protect workers and families and create immediate economic stimulus. After all, unemployed workers spend their checks. They don’t have any other income…

The legislature still could do much more to insure that this bill creates a floor against the ravages of the recession, as well as a permanent gift to business. Lawmakers could include $25 a week for dependents’ allowances for unemployed workers, as other states do. The federal stimulus identifies this as a goal for unemployment insurance. And yes, unemployed workers have children!

Our legislators could figure out how to cover health care for unemployed workers through the Basic Health Plan. The money is there in the unemployment insurance trust fund. Our basic health program is “shovel ready” for expansion. We don’t have to invent a new protocol for this — the system for basic health coverage has been around for 15 years. Unemployed workers can ill afford to pay for the continuation of health coverage they got at their place of work. That coverage, known as COBRA, can easily cost more than $700 a month. Try to pay that when you are receiving $1,300 a month in unemployment insurance.

The House Democratic Campaign Committee boasted last year that it had “approved paid family medical leave, which will provide workers with financial assistance when they need to take care of their newborn children or adoptees, making Washington the second state in the nation to enact such a law.” The law goes into effect on Oct. 1 of this year. But there is a catch. There’s no money for this financial assistance. Senate Bill 5963 could fund this program easily. Family leave will provide $250 a week for five weeks to a parent with a newborn or newly adopted child. The total annual cost is about $25 million. That’s less than 9 percent of the premium giveback to businesses.

The No. 1 priority of our legislators should be the well-being of the people of our state. After all, businesses in our state will do well when working families thrive. And as long as our families struggle, so will our economy.

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Posted in Education, Health Care, Retirement Security, State Economy, Tax and Budget, Work & Family

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