Republicans strip earned benefits from unemployed workers

AUGUSTA – In a party-line vote of in the Maine House and Senate, Republicans voted late this afternoon to reduce unemployment insurance benefits to unemployed job seekers

The Republican-backed bill forces unemployed workers to use up their earned vacation time prior to collecting unemployment insurance and shortens the duration of the benefit.

“Taking away earned time spits in the face of the Maine work ethic,” said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, during the floor debate. “Not only is government taking away money earned from working people, it is also telling Mainers how to spend their money.”

The measure, LD 1725, delays unemployment benefits and reduces the time frame during which a job seeker is required to widen their job search outside their occupation, wage, or geographic region, from 12 weeks to 10 weeks.

“This is the money unemployed workers are counting to pay their bills in the worst of times,” said Paul Gilbert, D-Jay. “We were elected to create jobs not make things harder for the unemployed.”

Democrats argued the measure put a target on the backs of job seekers, rather than stamping out unemployment fraud or creating jobs.

Maine would be one of only 11 states in the country that delays unemployment benefits based on having earned vacation pay.

“Vacation pay is an earned benefit,” said Rep. Rob Hunt, D-Buxton. “When I wreck my car, the insurance company doesn’t wait six, seven, or eight weeks to see if my car is still wrecked, I don’t have to use my rainy day fund first before I get my benefit.”

“Laid off workers are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash who also serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development committee. “Workers not only count on but need their earned benefits, like vacation time, to get by. We should be helping Maine workers stay afloat not taking money out of their pockets during a time of transition.”

Maine has the 5th lowest rate of unemployment fraud in the nation and the 5th healthiest unemployment trust fund in the nation.

“We are just starting to come out of a very deep recession and we have a choice: we can go down the road of penalizing workers or we can find ways to get people back to work that are productive,” said Sen. Phil Bartlett of Gorham. “Let’s stand up for Maine workers instead of unraveling and cutting holes in a safety net that helps workers.”

Bartlett added that unemployment benefits are part of the “core fundamental safety net” that help workers during economic distress.

The Maine Senate tacked on a last-minute amendment to the bill, which will allow employers to pay vacation time of up to four weeks to a laid off worker. Democrats said the measure was still unfair and arbitrary.

The bill faces more votes in the Senate and House.