Sen. Rob Sampson, Sen. Julie Kushner, and Rep. Manny Sanchez Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee advanced a bill on Thursday that would make workers eligible for unemployment benefits after spending two consecutive weeks on strike. 

The committee moved the bill along to the state Senate on a party line vote as part of a crowded mid-morning agenda. The panel moved a similar proposal to the Senate last year, where the chamber’s Democratic leadership surprised some observers by spending several hours late in the session debating and eventually passing the bill. The House declined to follow suit.

This year, Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat who co-chairs the panel, said she hoped her committee’s early action on the proposal would leave time to build support to push it across the finish line. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The change, which has been adopted in nearby New York, would help level the playing field for workers in a dispute with their employers.

“[The bill] will ensure that working families aren’t starved out when they take a stand in terms of entering into a labor dispute because they want to make significant improvements in conditions,” Kushner said. “Sometimes those are wage improvements, a lot of times they are to protect existing pension or health care benefits.” 

During Thursday’s meeting, Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, concisely summed up opposition to the proposal, calling it government intervention in a favor of one half of a labor dispute.

“To me, it’s an absurd notion on its face,” he said. “People are voluntarily walking off the job. I don’t know that that is a justification for providing them with benefits, especially when those benefits are ultimately paid for by employers.”

When the bill was raised for a public hearing last week, Eric Gjede, a vice president for public policy at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, questioned whether the state’s unemployment fund could handle what he expected to be an increase in the amount of benefits paid out. 

Employers were still paying down pandemic-era loans to shore up the fund, even after state policymakers stepped in to help last year, Gjede said. 

“I urge the committee to consider whether the unemployment compensation trust fund is financially capable of funding benefits for striking workers who do not meet the criteria for receiving benefits,” Gjede said.

Labor advocates, meanwhile, believe concerns about the impact to the UI fund are overblown.  Ed Hawthorne, president Connecticut AFL-CIO, argued the change would result in fewer strikes because it would give employers a financial incentive to bargain in good faith in order to resolve labor disputes before striking workers become eligible for unemployment benefits. 

“If [employers] understand their unemployment experience rate could increase if their employees were able to collect unemployment benefits after being on strike for two weeks, they will be more likely to negotiate to avoid a work stoppage altogether,” Hawthorne said. “They would also save themselves the inconvenience and added cost of hiring replacement workers.”

It is unclear whether Gov. Ned Lamont would support the bill in the event it passed the legislature. A spokesman said Thursday the governor would be watching the debate. Asked about the concept during last year’s Senate debate, Lamont told reporters “it sounds pretty novel,” but declined to take a position. 

In written testimony this year, Dante Bartelomeo, the administration’s Labor Department commissioner, pointed to the Office of Fiscal Analysis’ expectation that the bill could impact the Unemployment Trust Fund to the extent that workers go on strike. She did not take a position on the bill.