Dear friends and neighbors:
When the Legislature convened in January, we were prepared to act swiftly to support the thousands of workers and small businesses suffering due to the pandemic. For many of our neighbors, the last year has been filled with financial anxiety and hardship.
In the first month of session, we passed a $2.2 billion relief package to help thousands meet basic needs with housing and food assistance, provide more than 12,000 small business assistance grants, help childcare businesses stay open, and provide the hardest-hit businesses with tax relief. Before we left Olympia, we took several more steps to support our state’s workers and business owners.
Improving the unemployment benefits system
When the pandemic hit last year, hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians who were suddenly out of work turned to the Employment Security Department (ESD) for assistance. Unfortunately, the ESD was overwhelmed by the historically large and swift volume of applicants entering the system. This year, we passed SB 5193 to reform the department and address issues that prevented Washingtonians from receiving unemployment benefits in a timely manner. It will implement additional oversight and performance measures at ESD to ensure people in need find a more responsive agency, receive benefits quickly and securely, and see disputes resolved quickly when they do arise.
Despite the challenges, I am proud of the role our office played in escalating roughly 470 individual claims to ESD during the pandemic so far. I want to thank my legislative assistant Sam Hendrickson and my session aide Chris Thomas for helping respond to more than 750 constituents who needed help navigating the system so they could receive their benefits.
Tax relief for small businesses
A bipartisan majority of the Legislature supported SB 5478, which provides unemployment insurance (UI) tax relief to employers in economic sectors hit hardest by COVID-19 measures in 2020 and 2021, including restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, gyms, bowling alleys, retail outlets and others. Absent legislative action, those businesses would have seen a massive increase in UI taxes in 2022 due to the historically large number of their workers who received UI benefits during the pandemic. All told, the Legislature has invested $2.2 billion in the UI trust fund, reducing future costs for Washington’s employers by that amount this session.
Another bill (SB 5272) passed this year suspended annual liquor licensing fees for businesses hurt by closures last year. These are concentrated in the hospitality industry. As we build back from the pandemic, these bills will make sure our relief dollars go first and foremost to the businesses hardest hit.
More worker protections
- SB 5115 will ensure that workers know when they’ve had a potential exposure to an infectious disease and make it easier for frontline workers to receive compensation if they’re infected on the job.
- HB 1097 will help protect workers who speak up about workplace hazards.
- SB 5172 creates an equitable path toward full overtime pay for agricultural workers by 2024 – finally bringing them in line with the rest of American workers who are compensated for working overtime.
- SB 5254 allows employees to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), regardless of workplace, during a public health emergency.
- SB 5284 eliminates the practice of paying subminimum wages to Washingtonians with disabilities.
Thanks for taking the time to read this update. If you missed my previous updates on this year’s legislative session, click here to get caught up on what the Legislature accomplished on childcare, climate action, tax reform, police accountability and housing.
Senator Jamie Pedersen