Tompkins Legislature/City and Town of Ithaca Advocate Expanding Safety Net for Unemployed (Ithaca Times)

A resolution calling for unemployment insurance reform throughout New York State has been passed by the Tompkins County legislature, the City of Ithaca Common Council and the Town Board of the Town of Ithaca. Key points of the resolution, written by Carl Feuer, a Board Member at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, call on state lawmakers to increase the maximum unemployment benefit, to expand access to job-training programs, and to eliminate the loophole in unemployment laws that prevents many educational institution workers from receiving seasonal unemployment when schools are out of session. The resolution is part of a state-wide campaign to change New York’s unemployment laws.

“It’s unique in itself that we’re getting all three of the biggest levels of government in Tompkins County to pass this,” said Pete Meyers of the TC Workers’ Center. “And it’s basically a resolution urging the governor, the state senate and the assembly to look at comprehensive unemployment insurance reform. There [are] a lot of different groups involved – we’re working with a state-wide coalition that works on unemployment reform.”

The resolution asks for both an increase of the maximum unemployment benefit and also a recalculation of unemployment benefits. While someone making $700 a week might receive $350 each week in benefits if laid-off, a person making $8 an hour would receive $160 each week in benefits, less than half of the Tompkins County Living Wage. The resolution aims to offer a greater proportion of benefits to extremely-low wage workers.

“It’s sending a message. It’s not actually creating new legislation, just by having this happen at the local level, but resolutions are one of the things that, in a campaign, to kind of get to raise awareness of people locally,” said Meyers. “Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton is fully on board with these changes.”

Another issue in the resolution is the seasonal unemployment by some staff workers at most educational institutions throughout the state. When a cafeteria worker is fired for a season at a school – for winter break, or for summer vacation – they are frequently ineligible to receive unemployment benefits.

“There’s a ton of people that are not getting unemployment that could and should,” said Meyers. “And they’re all low-wage workers. That’s one of the differences. Some people say, ‘Well, teachers don’t get paid during the summer.’ But teachers are starting out at much higher salaries a year. Not that they’re millionaires, but they’re making enough money to survive.”

From elementary schools to Cornell university, many institutions throughout the state do not give seasonal workers benefits. Meyers says that, while there are exceptions, it is common enough to be a big unemployment issue.

“The cafeteria workers at IC do get unemployment because it’s through a private contractor,” he explained. “But because it affects so many workers here in Ithaca, that’s one of the reasons that we’re focusing on that particular aspect of reform. It’s actually got a big, state-wide implication: every school district in the state, for example.”

Meyers said he and the other allied organizations are enthusiastic about the chances for unemployment insurance reform, but believe that it might be a long-term issue.
Meyers believes that the issue is just one aspect of his organization’s greater goal of workers’ rights. And while the passed resolutions are filled with specific details, they are all just aspects of the intended design of the resolution.

“Really, in my mind, this is about redistributing wealth,” said Meyers. “We’re doing this for the workers, and it fits with living wage. A Cornell worker who is making $11.50 an hour – which is actually because of the Union, because no one starts in the Union under $11.50 an hour – would be making a living wage if they were making that the whole year, but they’re only working for nine months of the year because of seasonal layoffs.

“You can look at living wage both in terms of hourly wage, or in terms of annual,” he added. “So right now, the living wage is $9.18 an hour, and $19,100 a year.”

The issue is sure to cause debate in business circles throughout the state, especially if the call for change reaches the New York legislature. For now, Meyers said that the resolutions have yet to stir up major disagreement.

“There hasn’t been a lot of opposition,” he said. “I think it’s still such a new issue in a lot of ways that I haven’t seen a lot of opposition. That being said, when the story first appeared in The Ithaca Journal [the day after the City of Ithaca Common Council passed the resolution] – they have an online comment thing, and some of the comments were basically saying ‘Oh, another entitlement system.’ This isn’t entitlement to people. These are people that are working, and this is not a welfare system. The idea with unemployment is that if people are doing their best to work and everything and they get laid-off or fired or something, you want to have a social system to help. FDR founded this in 1931.”

– Jake Bakkila