BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – State Sen. Rich Taylor said the state should not start charging unemployment claims back to employers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of a question-and-answer session sponsored by Lee County Economic Development Group on Tuesday afternoon, Taylor, along with Iowa WORKS’ Michael Witt, development division administrator for southeast Iowa, fielded questions for about an hour on issues mainly associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said last week that the state Unemployment Trust Fund had to be protected and officials were going to allow the fund to dip to $850 million before starting to charge unemployment back to employers.
Taylor said he thinks that’s a bad move in light of the current pressure on small businesses in Iowa.
“Originally, as a legislature, we planned on not allowing that to happen. I was in a conversation yesterday with my caucus where we said we are going to continue to support that position, that employers would not be charged for this,” Taylor said.
“We did get a lot of extra funding from the federal government to take care of these claims and at this point, I don’t see any reason why we would go back on our word on that.”
He encouraged residents to writer letters to the Senate leadership in support of the state to sticking to their word on that issue.
Witt said the state is obviously looking at protecting its Unemployment Trust Fund.
“I don’t know what the details were of that statement, but obviously they are looking to protect that fund,” he said.
Taylor also said he believes the state is doing a pretty good job and protecting small businesses and employees during this unprecedented time and said we need to get behind Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state’s course of action.
He said the state could probably go a little further in efforts to keep people isolated from one another, but said these are difficult times and he wouldn’t want to be in the Governor’s shoes.
“I actually think we’re doing a pretty good job. I think we could probably go a little further and it seems like daily the governors is going a little further. We’re not going to stop this virus,” Taylor said.
“These shelter-in-places won’t get rid of this virus, but hopefully we can slow it and hopefully we won’t get overwhelmed with it. In my opinion were doing a pretty fair job in Iowa. I would hate to be the governor right now and have to make these life and death decisions. It has to be weighing heavily on her conscience, I know it would be on mine.”
When pressed about defining an essential business, Taylor said it’s his understanding that an essential business is any business needed to sustain life as we know it.
But he said a lot of businesses are connected to those essential businesses behind the scenes and may be required to be open.
“A lot of times it has something to do with food chain or health care and it could be a behind-the-scenes thing. Farms need to take care of the fields and that may require a part store be open. People have emailed me with connections I didn’t even understand,” he said.
Taylor said it’s his understanding that all the school districts in his county with the exception of some Washington County schools are able to complete the school year with online distance learning without going into the summer.
Witt spent a substantial amount of time addressing questions of unemployment and the federal government’s $600 weekly supplemental unemployment insurance program.
Witt said workforce development officials went to work quickly to get the program rolling, but there were some delays in getting guidance in interpreting the CARES Act benefits.
“Anyone drawing a claim whether an Iowa claim, a pandemic claim or other claim, is eligible,” Witt said. “They don’t have to do anything other than continue to report weekly with any earnings. That $600 will come to them automatically.”
He said the program got running in just over a week and it’s going to take a little bit of time before everyone starts to see the extra funds, but they will be paid back to the date they were eligible for the funds, which was the week beginning March 29. Payments currently will stop on the week ending July 25.
“Since we stood this up in just a week, it’s going to take a little bit before everyone starts to see it,” Witt said.
He said payments should start appearing by Thursday or Friday of this week.
Witt also cautioned employees about voluntary self isolation at jobs where they are still required to show up. He said residents concerned with those situations should work with their employers and contact state hotlines for direction.
He said they should not however stay home and risk losing their jobs.
Witt said voluntary separation would likely disqualify individuals from both unemployment and the $600 federal supplement under the CARES Act.
Taylor said the legislative session still has 35 to 40 days left in the session and he hopes to get back to work as soon as possible, but said April 30 now seems a bit aggressive.
“I don’t think it will be April 30, I think this will go on longer than that,” he said of the suspended session.
Taylor also said the pandemic has put a light on the poor access to broadband in rural Iowa. The federal government has been reallocating funds to help address some of the issues, but Taylor said the state could be doing more as well.
“I had a bill to add $15 million to our broadband funding. We did pass a bill in the Senate that added $5 million which is better than what we had but it’s not near enough,” Taylor said.
“I think we should be investing $50 million a year. But I do think this will wake a lot of people up. I think it shows how bad our broadband access really is in Iowa.”