Students Kristen Hoffmann and Marissa Martz pitched the idea to lawmakers in a visit to Olympia last week. On Friday, conservative Republicans in the House and Senate introduced bills to put the concept into law -- and Senate Democrats immediately denounced it as a punitive measure.
Senate Bill 6392 and House Bill 2690 require individuals do at least eight hours of community service for every four weeks of unemployment benefits received. The bills exempt those younger than 18 and older than 65 and people with a "justifiable cause for failure to perform community service."
Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, sponsor of the Senate bill, said the requirement will expand opportunities for the unemployed to make connections that might land them a job. He said it is not intended to be a punitive measure.
Martz and Hoffmann both said punishing those without jobs was not their aim either.
"The intention is not to punish people on unemployment," Hoffmann said. "It is to open doors, reduce fraud, keep people moving and help them find work."
But Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, didn't see it that way. In a prepared statement she said:
"Our friends and neighbors seeking jobs are already struggling to pay the bills and feed their kids in addition to looking for work. Community service is an honorable pursuit, but forcing someone into it simply to maintain their family's lifeline is downright cold."
In their written proposal submitted to lawmakers, the two students said the bill is intended "to reduce unemployment fraud in Washington State by adding extra requirements of community service" and to "reduce money going towards people who don't truly need unemployment."
Hoffmann said they were searching for a way to curb the number of people who collect checks without fully complying with existing requirements to find a job. In order to receive benefits, one must make contact with at least three potential employers per week.
Requiring service seemed a way to do that and provide a little benefit for nonprofit community groups.
Martz said she thinks the bill, if passed, could help individuals learn new skills or hone ones they already have. It also could help them beef up their resumes and improve their chances to find work.
"There is a saying, 'A body in motion stays in motion.' What we're trying to do is to help people to stay motivated, to keep moving," she said. "And at the end of the day you are giving something back to the community."
She said both of them have had a parent spend time on unemployment and become discouraged at the difficulty of finding work. That's why they don't want this to be seen as punishment.
"We know how hard it is to find jobs," she said.
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