Grace Deng

(Washington State Standard) Unemployment benefits for striking workers won’t be available in Washington anytime soon.

House Bill 1893 failed to make it to the Senate floor before a key cutoff deadline on Friday afternoon, sinking the bill for this year.

The union-backed legislation would have allowed workers who walk off the job to qualify for up to four weeks of unemployment insurance benefits. They’d become eligible on the second Sunday following the first day of a strike and could then begin to receive benefit payments after an additional one-week waiting period.

Had the bill passed, employees would have also no longer been disqualified from unemployment insurance during employer-initiated labor lockouts. Lockouts are one way management can pressure a striking workforce during contract negotiations.

Labor unions across the state have called on the Legislature to pass the bill, saying it will help striking workers with expenses like rent and food while they fight for better pay and workplace protections. Joe Kendo, a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, said he was “sorely disappointed.”

“Senate Democrats couldn’t pull it together,” Kendo said. “It was a real missed opportunity to help a lot of low-wage workers who have been organizing unions but who have corporate employers who refuse to bargain in good faith.”

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said there weren’t enough votes in the Senate for the bill. Keiser chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee, which voted to advance the proposal.

“We were really close,” said Keiser, who sponsored companion legislation in the Senate. “We were so close I could taste it.”

“It was a big, new idea and it was a short session,” Keiser added. “I think there was a caution and a reluctance. A lot of people were just not comfortable taking on a big, new idea in a short session.”

The business community, Keiser said, “universally opposed” the legislation and was not interested in negotiating. Republicans and some Democrats also opposed the bill, citing the potential burden on the state’s unemployment insurance system, which employers fund through tax payments.

House lawmakers amended the bill sent to the Senate to shift benefit costs onto employers involved in labor disputes covered by the legislation, rather than spreading the expense across the unemployment insurance system.

Still, Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, called it “fundamentally unfair” and said Thursday it was one of the bills Senate Republicans were working hardest to stop as the session nears its end next Thursday.

“I am not in any way opposing folks’ ability to organize and the right to strike, that’s well defended and allowed under current law,” Braun said. “But the idea that we’re going to make everybody else pay for it seems wrong-headed.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom last year vetoed similar legislation, which unions pushed around the time of the Hollywood writers and actors strikes. Newsom cited concerns about the state’s unemployment trust fund, which is struggling with funding shortfalls.

Washington’s unemployment system, in contrast, is fairly robust, and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said he supported House Bill 1893.

California lawmakers reintroduced the bill there this year. Kendo said he would “not be surprised at all” if labor unions here in Washington decide to prioritize similar efforts next year.

The proposal followed a year of notable walkouts across the country and in Washington. There were more U.S. strikes involving a thousand workers or more in 2023 than in any year since 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.