May 22—JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate unanimously agreed late Wednesday night to spend $10 million on a program that would offer unemployed Alaskans $1,200 if they find full-time work and $600 if they find part-time work.
The program found bipartisan agreement in the Senate, but it won’t happen unless it survives the state budget process and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto pen. A spokesman for the governor said he will review it if it’s in the final version of the budget.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, proposed the program with the support of Republican Sens. Click Bishop of Fairbanks and Bert Stedman of Sitka. Wielechowski thinks it has a chance.
“There’s a lot of people out there, a lot of businesses struggling to get employees. With the money, maybe this is sort of a minor way we can get them some help,” he said.
As of Friday, four states had enacted similar return-to-work bonuses using federal aid from the American Rescue Plan earlier this year. Alaska is receiving about $1 billion that it can spend flexibly, and about half of that can be spent this year.
Arizona’s plan is paying $2,000 to unemployed people who find full-time work in that state. Montana and Oklahoma are offering the same amount that Alaska would, and New Hampshire is offering $1,000 for full-time work.
Wielechowski said the idea for Alaska’s plan came after the Dunleavy administration cut a $300 per-week federal unemployment boost. Without that boost, Alaska’s maximum unemployment payment will drop from $670 per week to $370 per week. Unemployed Alaskans with children may receive extra money.
Commissioner Tamika Ledbetter of the Department of Labor said the cut is intended to push unemployed Alaskans into the workforce, but Wielechowski was not satisfied with that approach.
“I’d been talking to Bert and Click to see what we can do to help out our unemployed and were brainstorming and came up with this,” he said.
Other senators were brainstorming as well. Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, said she was considering a $500 stimulus payment, but that idea never made it to the Senate floor. A proposal to restore the federal unemployment boost failed by one vote.
Wielechowski convinced Republican lawmakers on the bonus idea with a speech pointing out that Republicans in other states had taken similar actions. He believes the bonus could help both the unemployed and employers who said they have struggled to find workers.
According to his estimates, the state could pay 8,300 full-time bonuses with the amount of money earmarked for the project.
Only state residents receiving unemployment are eligible for the program, and a person could receive a bonus only once, after their fourth full week of unemployment.
“It’s pretty significant and could have a pretty good impact for people,” Wielechowski said.