Washington lawmakers look at providing unemployment benefits to striking workers

Striking health care workers on the picket line in front of Swedish/Edmonds hospital during the three-day walkout in 2020. (File photo by Larry Vogel)

Washington may become one of a few states that allow striking workers to qualify for unemployment benefits under certain conditions.

Under House Bill 5777, workers who walk off the job will qualify for unemployment if employers lock them out of their place of employment. Lockouts are one way management can pressure a striking workforce during contract negotiations. Workers experiencing lockouts would still have to wait a week before being eligible for unemployment insurance.

The proposal follows 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.

Over 200 people signed in to testify in support of HB 5777 during a Tuesday hearing on the legislation, said Sen. Karen Keiser, lead sponsor of the bill. Keiser is also a member of SAG-AFTRA, which pushed California lawmakers to pass similar legislation during last year’s historic Hollywood strikes — although it was vetoed by the state’s governor. 

The legislation is strongly backed by labor unions across the state: members from Starbucks Workers United, United Auto Workers, Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO, Teamsters 117 and United Food and Commercial Workers were among those who testified in support. Supporters argue the bill will reduce the burden of strikes on low-wage workers.

“We should be able to exercise the right to strike without losing the roof over our heads,” said Rachel Ybarra, a member of Starbucks Workers United.

Industry groups pointed out that employers fund unemployment insurance through tax payments and worried that allowing striking workers to qualify could strain the program and businesses’ finances.

Bruce Beckett of the Washington Retail Association said the bill, as it’s designed now, could “dramatically increase the cost of benefits” in a way that impacts every Washington employer.

“Those costs are socialized,” he said.

However, Brenda Wiest, who represents Teamsters 117, said that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the last decade, only a few major labor disputes in Washington — defined by a thousand or more workers on strike — lasted more than 14 days.

Wiest argued that the bill’s potential effect on the state’s unemployment trust fund would be “negligible.”

“The financial security that workers benefit from is far greater than the cost,” she said.

Recent walkouts have resulted in gains for union workers across the country. In southwest Washington, around 2,000 educators, including a state representative, went on strike in late August. Nationally, United Auto Workers staged a six-week campaign of coordinated strikes among over 40,000 of its nearly 150,000 members last fall, winning record pay for its members. 

New York is the only state where striking workers have qualified for unemployment since its conception, but a growing group of states are considering the labor policy. Last year, New Jersey passed similar legislation and Maine’s Department of Labor determined workers at a paper mill qualified for unemployment during a walkout, marking a first in the state’s history.

by Grace Deng, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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