How part-time worker benefits were won

After eight years of effort and multiple legislative defeats, advocates for unemployed workers scored a victory this session in the New Hampshire Legislature when House Bill 170 passed both the House and the Senate. HB 170 extends unemployment benefits to those part-time workers with child care limitations. The governor has indicated he will sign the bill.

Up until now, the general rule of law in New Hampshire has been that in order to collect benefits, unemployed workers must be available to seek permanent, full-time work. Even if the worker had compelling personal reasons, he or she would be denied unemployment benefits if the worker did not claim full-time work availability.

The new law modifies the general rule. If the worker is the only adult able to care for a child under age 16 and the person is available at least 20 hours per week, that worker will be able to collect unemployment benefits if the reason for separation from employment was non-disqualifying. The new law will apply regardless of shift.

To appreciate the significance of this legislation, a little history is in order. In 1997, a bill passed the Legislature that required the advisory council of the Department of Employment Security to study the issue of unemployment compensation as it relates to the contingent workforce and low-wage workers.

That bill recognized that there had been a significant increase in the growth of part-time employment in the New Hampshire economy. This contingent workforce typically is lower paid, lacks job security and does not have benefits like health insurance and pensions. Women workers are over-represented in this sector.

The bill acknowledged that the unemployment system had not adapted to the changing economy. At the inception of unemployment compensation in the 1930s, the system was premised on a male breadwinner model. Normalcy was a Beaver Cleaver world. The father worked and supported the family. The mother tended house and cared for children.

Since that time, women have come into the workforce in much larger numbers. The 1997 legislation explicitly stated that the unemployment compensation system had failed to examine the implications of the increased role of women in the economy.

Out of that bill, the Unemployment Advisory Council held a series of public hearings, took testimony and made a number of recommendations which later became law. At that point, the council did not make any recommendation for unemployment and child care but did suggest that child-care issues be revisited in two years.

In 1999, the Department of Employment Security produced a report looking both at part-time availability issues and at voluntary quits due to child care. This report did not recommend changes.

In the years since 1999, there have been repeated attempts to draft and pass legislation that would address the part-time issue. Every session, the House Labor Committee faced this perennial issue. These efforts foundered for a variety of reasons, including complaints about cost, concerns about the language of various bills and simple opposition to a bill designed to help workers.

Much of the credit for this year’s successful legislation goes to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Bishop, R-Raymond, and Employment Security Commissioner Richard Brothers. Representative Bishop brought passion and dogged determination to the fight. He would not let go. Commissioner Brothers had the vision to craft a compromise that would be largely acceptable to business and would garner the needed votes.

While the bill is not everything advocates wanted, it is a positive step in the direction of covering a section of the part-timers. More and more states have developed favorable policies toward laid-off part-time workers. Nine states pay unemployment benefits to part-timers on an essentially equal basis with full-time workers. Another 13 states and the District of Columbia provide benefits to part-timers based on work history or good cause.

HB 170 offers some positive lessons for worker advocates. If advocates can make a persuasive case that a genuine problem exists, legislators and state agencies will eventually move. However, any advocate who expects instant gratification is likely to be sorely disappointed. It is wise to be prepared for a long haul.

Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is a lawyer for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

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