Assistant business manager, IBEW Local 2325
The purpose of the proposed legislation, Massachusetts bills H. 1947 and S. 1172, is to prevent strikes. The legislation would do so by encouraging private corporations to expeditiously start collective bargaining in good faith early in the process.
Under the proposed legislation, workers on strike would be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits after a 30-day waiting period. This forces corporations to take a more serious approach to bargaining instead of waiting weeks to gauge the temperament of the workers on strike because they will have to start paying benefits after 30 days.
The 30-day window is important since most workers on strike lose their health insurance after 30 days. For workers with serious health issues like cancer, this is devastating and life-threatening.
Workers do not want long, drawn-out strikes. With the high cost of living in Massachusetts, many workers live paycheck to paycheck. It is very difficult to survive without any pay and it impacts people’s lives dramatically.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association strike at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester lasted nearly 10 months. It began March 8, 2021, and was the longest nurses’ strike in the nation in more than 15 years and the second-longest in state history, according to the union. Nurses lost their cars and their homes and marriages suffered. Long drawn-out strikes take a serious emotional toll on workers, their families, and the economy at large.
Historically, the availability of unemployment benefits for striking workers has been dependent on the support of the governor. Families cannot rely on the support of whoever is sitting in the corner office. The proposed legislation takes away the political decisions and makes striking workers eligible by law.
This is not unique to Massachusetts. Striking workers can become eligible for New York benefits after 14 days. This April, New Jersey reduced the waiting period before striking workers can become covered under unemployment insurance from 30 days to 14 days.
Now is the time to make striking workers eligible by law. We have tried to get similar legislation passed for years without success, but post-COVID, there is a greater appreciation for the many workers who never stopped working during the pandemic. From my own experience at Verizon, we worked continuously to make sure everyone who was working and learning from home had internet service.
Striking is a last option, and this proposed legislation will help prevent future strikes.
State director, National Federation of Independent Business
To say that the pandemic strained the Massachusetts Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund would be an understatement. The fund pays temporary unemployment benefits to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own and is subsidized by payroll taxes on employers.
Now, despite billions in fund debt paid for by a special COVID tax added to employers’ unemployment insurance bills, lawmakers have proposed several pieces of legislation to expand eligibility, including allowing striking workers to receive unemployment. This legislation will make our UI system — ranked dead last by the Tax Foundation — even more costly, further damaging the Commonwealth’s competitiveness.
Massachusetts began 2020 with a positive UI fund balance of $1.6 billion — typically more than enough to cover a year of benefits. By the summer of 2020, the fund was depleted when Massachusetts experienced the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 17 percent. Due to state-ordered closures, jobs were lost, and unemployment claims skyrocketed. To continue paying benefits, the state borrowed money from the federal government, but still ended the year with a negative $2.24 billion balance.
When the pandemic subsided, the state needed to repay $2.7 billion in principal and interest to the federal government. While Maryland, Georgia, Ohio, and Illinois allocated billions in aid to shore-up their funds, Massachusetts lawmakers provided just $500 million for a $2.7 billion problem, leaving employers to cover most of the tab. Business owners are now forced to pay a decade-long COVID assessment on their UI bills for layoffs that were beyond their control.
My point in recalling this timeline is to highlight the considerable and unprecedented strain the fund is under. The discovery by auditors that Massachusetts overwithdrew $2.5 billion in federal unemployment money compounds its insolvency, and federal officials haven’t determined whether employers will be responsible for this error on top of the existing $2.7 billion.
Now is not the time to further stress an unstable unemployment fund by expanding eligibility, including for striking workers. Unemployment was not designed to cover workers opting to strike; that is why union dues and strike pay exist. Striking workers receiving unemployment creates an imbalance that will place Massachusetts employers at a disadvantage. Both sides should negotiate in good faith with a willingness to reach a mutually beneficial agreement to resume work.
Small businesses oppose extending unemployment benefits to striking workers resulting in further damage to an already fragile UI fund.
As told to Globe correspondent Linda Greenstein. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.