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HOT TOPIC » Unemployment Insurance

by Jennifer Burnett
In the past year alone, Colorado’s jobless fund dropped by more than $530 million, from $562 million in January 2009 to $30 million in January 2010.
That’s according to Donald J. Mares, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, who also said the state processed more than 22,000 new applications in November from people who lost their jobs and were applying for unemployment benefits. Just two years earlier, the monthly average for new applications was about 11,000, he said.
“Like all states, Colorado has been hit hard. More people are tapping into the benefits,” Mares said in a statement following a presentation before the state’s Joint Budget Committee.

Borrowing to Pay the Bills

The nation’s unemployment rate was at 9.7 percent in January, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Americans are spending more time unemployed during the economic downturn—up from 18 weeks in November 2008 to 28 weeks in November 2009. That puts a significant strain on state resources.
The primary reason state trust funds—the pots of money states use to pay workers who have lost their jobs—are running out of money is simple: The amount of money coming into the funds has stayed the same or even decreased at a time when the number of jobless workers needing the benefits has skyrocketed.
“The base wage that employers pay in to the (unemployment) trust fund hasn’t changed in 25 years,” Jane Oates, assistant secretary for U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, told C-SPAN in January. “So when you have more people using benefits and you haven’t increased the amount of revenue that you are putting in, you are going to come up with a situation where you are short on funds.”
And short on funds is exactly where a lot of states are in their unemployment insurance trust fund balances. Some state trust funds have already run out of money—some are deeply in the red—and have been forced to borrow from the U.S. Treasury, which lends money to states to help stabilize the funds during volatile times.
As of February, the average amount borrowed from the feds per state was just more than $1.1 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. California borrowed the most of any state—$6.9 billion; it’s been borrowing federal funds since January 2009. Colorado, the first state forced to seek help this year, borrowed $27 million by the end of January.
Michigan, which faced unemployment rates as high as 15.3 percent over the past few years, was the first state to begin borrowing money, starting in September 2006. Its loan balance was $3.37 billion in January.
By the end of January 2010, states had borrowed more than $30 billion from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits.

Making Cuts, Raising Taxes

Although the Recovery Act includes a provision that delays interest from accruing on the loans until the end of 2010, the bill eventually will come due. Oates said some states will be paying back those loans in 2020.
And that interest will rack up; at the end of 2009, the interest rate on borrowed funds was approximately 3.8 percent, according to Ben Fendler, an analyst for the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Unless the deadline on interest accrual is extended a second time, states will have to look elsewhere for money to pay back the interest, because interest on borrowed funds cannot be paid back using unemployment revenues.
That spills over into general fund budgeting, which is forcing states to take action.
A recent survey by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies shows 35 states increased taxes on employers in 2010 and seven states enacted legislation to raise the portion of each employee’s income businesses must pay taxes on.
Washington is one state that raised unemployment taxes. According to the state’s Employment Security Department, the bottom rung for 2010 tax rates will rise from 0.35 percent to 0.95 percent. Taxes apply to the first $36,800 of earnings for each worker.
Washington recalculates tax rates each year using a formula established in state law. Because the state’s unemployment rates were low from 2005 through 2008, tax rates remained low in 2009. Higher-than-usual unemployment in 2009 has caused record benefit payouts, leading to the 2010 tax increase.
Washington’s fund stood at $2.79 billion in November 2009, enough to provide about 14 months of benefits in a severe recession, according to the department. Washington paid out around $2 billion in benefits in the last fiscal year but collected only $1 billion in taxes. Officials say without action, the fund will be in danger.
“So far, more than two dozen states have drained their unemployment funds and have racked up billions of dollars in federal debt to pay benefits, and more are going bankrupt every month,” Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee said in a press release. “After the recession, those states will have to doubly tax their employers to pay off their loans and also replenish their unemployment funds, while also paying ongoing claims—and that will be a competitive advantage for businesses in our state.”
Some states have resorted to cutting benefits.
Pennsylvania saw its unemployment rates rise from 6.4 percent in December 2008 to 8.9 percent one year later, sending its trust fund balance into a negative balance. The state began borrowing in March 2008 and by the end of January had borrowed almost $2.2 billion.
Troy Thompson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, said unemployment benefits were cut by 2.3 percent starting in January to preserve the fund and lessen federal borrowing. The reduction is based on a statutory requirement that triggers when unemployment rates are high or benefits paid out increase significantly.
New Hampshire’s trust fund remained positive until recently, but the state has now had to request a $17 million federal loan for March and $22 million for April.  
Darrell Gates, deputy commissioner of New Hampshire’s Employment Security office, said the governor brought interested parties—employers, labor advocates and legislators—to the table for a frank discussion on the state’s unemployment insurance crisis. The group also discussed the state’s options to address the problems.
“There was no question that action had to be taken,” Gates said. 
As a result of that conversation, the state has instituted a one-week waiting period for benefits for new claimants.    
 “The introduction of a one-week waiting period was a difficult decision but the continued support of the employer community was dependent on the claimant community participating in the solution to whatever extent they could,” Gates said.
 He said there was some discussion of cutting weekly benefit amounts. “The waiting week became the most viable means to reduce benefit payouts," said Gates.
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