West Virginia bill adding work search to unemployment, freezing benefits made law without signature

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s unemployed people will need to do more to prove they are searching for jobs to collect state benefits under a new law that will take effect later this year.

A controversial bill passed by the GOP-majority Legislature on the final day of the 60-day legislative session went into law without Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s signature Thursday. Justice did not comment on why he didn’t sign or veto the bill before the midnight deadline.

The legislation contains provisions that will go into effect July 1 requiring that people receiving unemployment benefits in the state must complete at least four work-search activities a week. Those activities could include applying for jobs or taking a civil service examination.

The law also freezes the rates people receiving unemployment benefits are paid at the current maximum of $622 a week, instead of a system adjusting with inflation. People also would be able to work part time while receiving unemployment and searching for full-time work. Current average benefits are around $420 a week.

Those in support of the measure said they were concerned about the long-term solvency of the state’s unemployment trust fund. Others said the fund is doing well and that they didn’t understand why the move was necessary.

Speaking on the House floor March 9, Democratic Del. Shawn Fluharty said he didn’t like the message the legislation sends.

“Here we are, just year in and year out, finding ways to chip away at who actually built this state: the blue-collar worker,” Fluharty said.

The legislation ultimately passed was a compromise between the House of Delegates and the Senate. An earlier version of the bill passed by the Senate would have drawn back benefit coverage from 26 to 24 weeks.

Under the Senate bill, an unemployed person would have started by receiving weekly checks amounting to $712 — an increase from the current maximum rate of $662 — or 70% of their original wage. Those checks would have been reduced by 5% every four weeks until the fourth sixth-week period, when the checks would amount to 45% of a person’s original wage.