Bill to reduce unemployment insurance charges for employers during pandemic advances

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,386 views 

The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee advanced a bill Tuesday (Feb. 2) allowing the Division of Workforce Services director to choose not to charge employers for unemployment claims made last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during future emergencies.

Also, the sponsor of a bill requiring medical providers and nursing homes in Arkansas to allow patient visitors agreed to present an amended bill next week to the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

House Bill 1212 by Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, would give the director of the Division of Workforce Services the discretion of not charging employers for unemployment claims if the benefits result from the governor’s declaration of a disaster emergency or a state or federal disaster declaration.

The bill would be retroactive to April 4, 2020, and also would apply to future disasters.

The director’s discretion would apply uniformly to all businesses during a particular time period, said Jim Hudson with the Department of Commerce. He said the department definitely would apply the noncharge to the second quarter of 2020. During a future disaster emergency, the trust fund’s solvency could be in question and the department may be only able to do a partial abatement, he said.

Ladyman said 2021 businesses’ unemployment insurance tax rates are determined by the employer tax contributions and the unemployment insurance benefit charges through June 30, 2020. Under current law, the spike in claims caused by the pandemic last year would result in an average 36% tax increase for 26,000 Arkansas employers.

Ladyman said a couple of hairdressers testified before interim Public Health committees about the effect the charges could have on them. One from Jonesboro received an unemployment bill for $35,000. She had never paid unemployment before. The Little Rock franchisee of the same company was billed $130,000.

Ladyman said there would be no impact on state general revenues, but the bill would affect the taxes paid into the unemployment insurance trust fund. The $60 million loss would be offset by the $165 million contribution made to the fund by the federal CARES Act last September. The trust fund has a balance of $798 million today, Ladyman said.

The bill has an emergency clause because employers must be notified of their 2021 tax rates by March 1.

“Their experience in 2020 mandates their rates in 2021, so it’s critical that we get this done and get the governor to sign it by March 1,” Ladyman said.

In other business, Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, agreed to amend House Bill 1061, which would create the No Patient Left Alone Act requiring health care providers to allow at least one person to be physically present with the patient.

Mayberry’s bill is in response to hospital and long-term care providers blocking visitors from seeing their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayberry called the emphasis on infection control at the expense of contact with loved ones “a horrible human experiment on isolation.”

“We’re allowing one aspect of healthcare to overrule the whole thing, and we are out of balance and out of whack,” she said.

The bill says children have the right to have a parent or another adult physically present while they are in the hospital, a healthcare office, a long-term care facility or a hospice facility. Adult patients would have the right to have a spouse, healthcare agent or legal guardian present. People with the right to be present could leave or return to the premises. Clergy members or spiritual advisors could be physically present.

The governor, Department of Human Services, the Department of Health and the State Board of Health could not waive the provisions. Hospitals could block visitors if they have signs and symptoms of a transmissible infection.

The bill has 13 House co-sponsors and seven co-sponsors in the Senate.

She said medical providers should enact commonsense measures to allow visitors to come into facilities and help provide care. She said nurses and doctors have texted her saying they want families there.

Mayberry said other states do not have legislation as sweeping as hers. She asked for her fellow lawmakers’ help. Several mentioned the need to make changes, leading the chairman, Rep. Ladyman, to suggest Mayberry present her bill again when the committee meets Feb. 9. Mayberry agreed to do that.

She later said by text the new version of the bill may have separate provisions for hospitals and long-term care facilities. She said she was looking at how other states clarify who are essential caregivers.

Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said his 90-year-old mother died alone in a hospital with her family members unable to visit. At one point, she was texting all night begging for a drink of water. Payton said a family member in the room would have gotten her the water. He said enough committee members supported the bill to pass it.

Nine individuals told legislators how facilities have prevented them from seeing their loved ones during the pandemic. Bill Pierce described how his father spent his last 10 months isolated in a nursing home before dying alone at 91. Janet Caldwell said she had seen her mother only “through a dirty window with a dirty screen” for the last 336 days. Pat Williams of Harrison has been able to see her 97-year-old father, who lives in an assisted living facility, only by talking on the phone through his window almost daily.

“I will stand on my head, whatever, to get in to see my father,” she said.

But Dr. Naveen Patil, the medical director-infectious disease at the Arkansas Department of Health, cautioned that there are still many unknowns about COVID-19. While expressing sympathy for the pain felt by families, he said scientists don’t know a lot about how the virus spreads. One facility can see significant spread while another has less. Of the state’s 5,000 deaths, 2,000 have been among nursing home residents, he said. He said visitation has not been shut down in a nursing home unless there are more than three cases.

Renee Mallory, the Health Department’s deputy director for public health programs, said the department was concerned about a conflict between federal and state regulations.

Rep. Mayberry opened her presentation with an amendment that was adopted by the committee that was meant to give hospitals the flexibility to comply with federal regulations, which would supersede state policies. She said federal law reflects support for patients having a caregiver at their side.

The amendment was largely presented by Jodiane Tritt with the Arkansas Hospital Association, who has been working on the legislation with Mayberry and Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, the Senate co-sponsor. Tritt noted that at the pandemic’s beginning, many hospitals lacked adequate personal protective equipment and testing supplies. She said her association had asked for liability protections that did not make it into the bill.

Mayberry told legislators that her 19-year-old daughter, Katie, that day was undergoing her 42nd surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where visitors are allowed. Mayberry’s husband was with Katie that day, but if Katie were 21, she likely would be in a different facility and alone. She asked why other hospitals can’t allow visitors if Arkansas Children’s Hospital can.

The committee also advanced House Bill 1068 by Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, allowing health care professionals to use telemedicine for group therapy.