Expanding District Unemployment Benefits: A Necessary Boost During These Tough Times

The District took an important step last month to expand unemployment benefits to more residents and get $18 million in federal stimulus dollars in return. At a special session July 31, the DC Council voted unanimously for an emergency bill expanding training to unemployed workers, as well as giving extra benefits to those with dependents.

It’s a big step, but there’s more to do. Permanent legislation needs to be passed to receive the money, and DC officials should consider expanding insurance to an even broader group of workers.

The District certainly hasn’t been immune to the economic downturn. DC’s unemployment rate was 10.9 percent in June, exceeding the national average of 9.5 percent. In other words, one out of every nine District residents who wants to be working right now is not. Yet under the current rules, many of these people are not eligible to collect unemployment benefits.

As part of the federal stimulus package, states and the District were given a financial incentive to expand benefits to workers who fit into four categories:

1. Part-time workers who have been denied unemployment benefits because rules require them to be looking for full-time work.
2. Those who leave the workplace due to a compelling family reason, including domestic violence, caring for a sick family member, and spousal relocation.
3. Workers with dependent family members. (They would receive $15 or more per dependent up to a maximum of $50.)
4. Laid-off workers who need additional training.

States needed to expand in at least two out of the four categories to get the stimulus dollars. As of May, more than 25 states already had changed their unemployment benefit rules to collect the federal dough.

After some discussion this summer, District officials decided to expand benefits to workers in categories 3 and 4: the dependent family members allowance and training. Officials with the Department of Employment Services said that the city already has expanded benefits to part-time workers and those who leave the workplace due to domestic violence.

Why not expand benefits and comply with federal guidelines in all four categories? There’s no good reason not to. Advocates for workers, including the DC Employment Justice Center, hope the Council will revise the permanent legislation this fall to include all four categories. And while making training an emphasis, the city should make sure that participation leads to real, sustainable jobs.

DC needs to be as aggressive as possible in tapping federal stimulus dollars. The expansion of unemployment benefits will not only boost families, but our local economy as well.