Councilmember Silverman Introduces Bill to Increase Unemployment Benefits

Today, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman introduced legislation focused on increasing unemployment benefits in the District and expanding unemployment support to part-time workers. The bill was co-introduced or co-sponsored by ten Councilmembers.

Unemployment insurance (UI) is one of the most important safety net programs for workers and benefits 30,000 District workers each year. Similar to social security, UI is considered an “earned benefit,” a benefit only available to individuals with a history of working.

Economic studies have found that unemployment benefits are one of the most effective forms of government stimulus by supporting consumer spending and stabilizing the economy during recessions. Further, the availability of benefits generally do not lead to substantial increases in the length of beneficiaries’ unemployment.

“Unfortunately, here in the District of Columbia, our unemployment benefit levels have fallen behind and are no longer adequate to help people bridge the gap between jobs,” Silverman said. “No matter how long you’ve been working or what your regular wages or salary are, you can’t get more than $359 a week in unemployment benefits. That’s less than minimum wage.”

Currently, unemployed workers are eligible for unemployment benefits equal to half of their average weekly wages, up to the cap of $359 a week, for up to 26 weeks. This is below both the weekly benefit for Maryland and Virginia. The current $359 weekly cap is less than a minimum wage worker earns and has lost roughly $100 in real value since 2005 due to inflation. The District’s current unemployment law also severely cuts benefits of claimants who try to obtain part-time work while looking for a full-time job.

In response to the low weekly cap, Silverman noted “$359 a week can’t even cover rent, let alone groceries, school supplies, or other necessities. $359 is also behind our neighbors in the region and a total of 36 other states, including many with a much lower cost of living than the District.”
The Unemployment Benefits Modernization Amendment Act of 2015 proposes to update the District’s unemployment benefits, which have not been increased for a decade. The bill raises benefits from $359, which is the lowest in the DMV area, to Maryland’s weekly maximum benefit of $430. This rate will then also be automatically indexed to keep pace with inflation.

The existing Unemployment Compensation Fund, which is used to pay unemployment benefits and currently has a $329 million balance, is one of the healthiest in the nation, running surpluses in recent years. If passed, this legislation would move the District to 21st among the states for level of its benefit cap, a substantial step above its current place as 39th. It will also allow unemployed individuals to receive higher partial benefits while working part-time and searching for full-time work.