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Committee hears testimony on unemployment insurance bills

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(The Center Square) – A legislative panel on Tuesday took testimony on recently introduced bills aimed at addressing no-fault unemployment insurance overpayments doled out to Massachusetts residents throughout the pandemic.

The Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development held hearings on nearly two dozen bills. Lawmakers and advocates weighed in on several of them.

House Bill 1922 and companion legislation Senate Bill 1162 contain several provisions, including the role an appointed commissioner has in ruling whether a recipient is indeed without fault for overpayments and how an appeals process could be carried out.

The bills come against the backdrop of new revelations of the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance’s handling of claims throughout COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders.

Under former Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, it recently was reported that the department erroneously used $2.5 billion in federal money to fund state unemployment checks. Current Gov. Maura Healey has indicated that her office will work with the U.S. Department of Labor to rectify the error.

Christopher Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business’ Massachusetts chapter, spoke in generalities about the assorted UI-related bills.

Speaking on behalf of NFIB’s clients across Massachusetts since the pandemic’s onset, Carlozzi said, “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Carlozzi said the organization is not inherently opposed to no-fault provisions but implored lawmakers to seek funding sources for the Unemployment Trust Fund that will not impact small business owners.

“Ensure the funding is there to support [no-fault waivers],” Carlozzi said. “The cost should not be shouldered by the employer.”

Sen. Lydia Edwards, D-East Boston, sponsored SB 1162. The legislation, she said, is meant to address what she described as an “overburdened, confusing system” that claimants had to navigate at the height of the pandemic.

“To me, this is more of a corrective measure,” Edwards said. “We can do better. We can set up a better system.”

Rep. Joan Meschino, D-Hull, the primary sponsor of HB 1922, shared similar sentiments about the bill’s intent while speaking to the committee.

“All this does is put in place a practical standard … to uplift and help [recipients of overpayment claims],” Meschino said. “These are workers and their families who haven’t had a chance to recover. We take care of businesses. We take care of people, too.”

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, said a number of the bills currently within the panel’s purview – including HB 1922 and SB 1162 – are linked to complex issues.

“We’ll hope to have an executive session at some point to report on these bills,” Jehlen said.

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