‘A victory for all working people’
By TIM ROWDEN
Jefferson City – A law that had cut the duration of the state’s unemployment benefits to one of the shortest periods in the nation was struck down last week by the Missouri Supreme Court.
“This is a victory for all working people,” Mike Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO said. “Everyone who loses a job by no fault of their own, deserves to be paid what they have earned. Our legislators had no right to manipulate our laws to hurt hard working families in favor of big business nor to ignore the rules of the people as dictated in our great state’s Constitution.”
Since January, jobless workers have been limited to 13 weeks of benefits as the measure linked the duration to the state’s unemployment rate, cutting the duration of benefits to 13 weeks from 20 weeks when the state’s unemployment rate falls below 6 percent. The measure also reduced unemployment insurance benefits for those Missourians who upon losing their job received some severance pay.
The benefit cut tied Missouri with North Carolina for the second shortest period, behind only the 12 weeks of benefits offered in Florida.
Democrat Gov. Jay Nixon had vetoed House Bill 150 on May 5, 2015, saying it was unfair to laid-off workers. The state House voted to override his veto a week later. But the state Senate did not act before ending its regular session work on May 15, instead waiting until September when lawmakers convened for a brief session to consider vetoes on a variety of bills.
In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court found that the state Senate had missed its constitutional window to act. The result is that Missouri's jobless benefits will return to a maximum of 20 weeks, which is still shorter than the longtime national norm of half a year.
The majority opinion, written by Judge George Draper III, said the state Senate override vote was invalid because the September session is reserved only for bills vetoed during the final week of the regular session or later, and the veto of the unemployment bill occurred earlier.
The court found the delayed Senate action violated the state’s constitution.
Michael Evans and Jim Faul of the law firm Hartnett Gladney Hetterman LLC brought the case on behalf of unemployed workers Timothy S. Pestka (Machinists Lodge 41) and Rudy M. Chavez (IBEW Local 124 in Kansas City, MO).
Gov. Nixon said in a statement said the ruling “is good news for thousands of Missourians who were wrongfully denied the unemployment benefits they had earned.”
As of July 26, an estimated 9,932 claimants had exhausted their unemployment benefits as a result of the 13-week cutoff, and an estimated 3,877 claimants were affected by the severance provision, said Lauren Schad, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Schad said the department will contact those people by mail about how to claim any additional benefits for which they may be eligible.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh (D-Bellefontaine Neighbors) said the law imposing the 13-week cutoff was “a bad deal for working people,” particularly trades workers whose employment can be sporadic.
Walsh, a retired member of Heat & Frost Insulators Local 1 is president of the Missouri State Building and Construction Trades Council.
“These aren’t people asking for a handout,” Walsh said. “Our work, dictates when we can work. If the economy is bad, there are men and women sitting on the bench. Thing’s are good now, but they’re just starting to get good. That wasn’t the case last year. Over a year, you might be off two weeks here, and another two weeks there, and before you know it your time is up. These people were still sitting on the bench. If a guy or gal can’t get groceries or pay their utilities, that’s all an unemployment check does. It isn’t much.”
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel (D-St. Louis), secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO and a member of IBEW Local 1 said the court’s ruling repaired a gaping hole in the safety net for working families.
“Although we are certain GOP lawmakers will again try to reduce unemployment benefits next year, Democrats are confident that after upcoming elections we will be in a strong position to stop them.”