The Alabama House Democratic Caucus, which includes State Reps. James Buskey, Adline Clarke, Napoleon Bracy and Barbara Drummond of Mobile, are circulating a petition against Senate Bill 92, a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that “would dramatically reduce the number of weeks unemployed workers could receive assistance.”

Currently, beneficiaries may receive as many as six months’ benefits, or 26 weeks. The bill proposed by a coalition of Republican senators calls for a range of 14 to 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate of the county or city in which the beneficiary resides.

Specifically, “(a) Any otherwise eligible individual shall be entitled during any benefit year, beginning on or after July 3, 1983, to a total amount of benefits equal to whichever is the lesser of 26 14 times his or her weekly benefit amount, if the average unemployment rate in the county of residence of the eligible individual is at or below 6.5 percent, with an additional weekly benefit amount added for each 0.5 percent increase in the average unemployment rate in the county of residence of the eligible individual above 6.5 percent up to a maximum of 20 times his or her weekly benefit amount if the average unemployment rate in the county of residence of the eligible individual equals or exceeds nine percent, and one third one-fourth of the wages paid to him or her for insured work during his or her base period; provided, that such total amounts of benefits, if not a multiple of $1.00, shall be computed to the nearest multiple of $1.00.”

In a news conference yesterday, Clarke, a former reporter at the Mobile Press-Register said, “when I read Senate Bill 92, I immediately called my former colleagues, who worked for many years for media outlets in Mobile. I surveyed some of them overnight and learned that due to the recession over the years and due to technology, many of them had been unemployed for as short a period as 11 months, and some as long as two years, though no fault of their own.”

The Press-Register was one of several Newhouse-owned publications in the state that suffered dramatic layoffs over the past five years.

“This will have a devastating impact on our state workers and their ability to obtain a stable, well-paying job and place an enormous strain on their families,” Clarke said. “The purpose of unemployment benefits is to help families obtain basic needs, food and housing, while unemployed individuals search for new jobs. The cash flow is important to families. It is also critical for local businesses, creditors and retailers.”

The current compensation for unemployment is $265 per week. The proposed legislation would actually raise it to $275 per week.

Clarke cited numbers from the National Employment Law Project, stating almost four out of 10 unemployed workers have been jobless for 27 weeks or more while the average unemployed worker has been out of work for 35 weeks.

“We should not assume that because someone does not accept the very first job offer that comes their way, that they are milking the system,” she said. “Rather, we should allow unemployed workers sufficient time to find the right position. This prevents individuals from returning to the unemployment line and also helps companies to hire and train the right workers, which leads to a reduction in costs over the long term for companies.”

Alabama’s unemployment rate was 3.5 percent in December, according to the Department of Labor, which is below the national average of 4.1 percent. In Mobile County, it was 4.2 percent in December.

Bracy said “the unemployment rate does not tell the whole story,” arguing many people are underemployed or have stopped looking for gainful employment.

“I’ve never heard the Chamber of Commerce identify access to unemployment benefits as something holding us back,” he said. “This is especially true in a city like Mobile where we have been elected to attract some world class companies and jobs but training for those jobs are leaving too many people out of work.”

Bracy said the Legislature’s resources would better be spent bolstering workforce training and community colleges.

Senate Bill 92 is expected to be deliberated by the House this week.

Photo | State Reps. Napoleon Bracy, Adline Clarke and John Knight speak against the proposed SB92 yesterday in Montgomery.