From all parts of the Commonwealth come reports of increasing unemployment, stressed city and county budgets, and a few rays of hope, mostly coming from the federal government.
Virginia’s jobless rate hit 6.6 percent last week, nearly double the rate of a year ago. While this is better than the national average of 8.1 percent, it is a big change for the Commonwealth. And of course, other parts of the state have been hit worse than Northern Virginia.
In just the last few days I’ve read about job losses around the state. Some are in the private sector. “GM buys out 1 in 4 hourly employees” reported the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star. “Big Brothers – Big Sisters Cut Staff” was the headline in the Staunton News Leader. And we all know about unemployment in the housing, construction, automotive and retail sectors.
Many government job losses are occurring in Virginia cities and counties . The Manassas News-Messenger reports that the Prince William Park Authority is preparing for cuts. “Portion of Jail Closed to Cut Costs” says the Winchester Star. “Budget Outlook Gloomy (in Franklin County) reports the Smith Mountain Eagle. “Concerns Voiced as Consumer Program Faces Ax” says the Virginian-Pilot about Virginia Beach. “Albemarle Says to Expect Fewer Services, Longer Waits” reports the Charlottesville Daily Progress. You get the idea.
There are many job cuts in state government too. Most notably, VDOT is releasing 1000 full-time and 450 part-time employees. The Department of Environmental Quality cut dozens of staffers. And the list goes on.
Social service agencies and non-profits are having a hard time keeping up with the need for benefits and services. Virginia families have fallen on hard times, even going hungry. Food banks are experiencing record demand and contributions are down. For the first time, the state is contributing money to the food banks: Governor Kaine recommended, and the General Assembly approved, a grant of $1 million to Virginia’s food banks.
Now some good news from the stimulus package.
Now that Virginia’s unemployment rate is above 6.5 percent, we are eligible for improved unemployment benefits. The Governor will recommend that we accept the additional $125 million of federal money by changing state rules to put Virginia in compliance with federal requirements. Changes would allow laid off workers to collect an additional 26 weeks of unemployment while enrolled in training programs and let workers laid off from part-time jobs to seek part-time work while receiving unemployment.
These are common-sense changes that would bring millions of dollars into the Commonwealth to help families and save jobs. Unfortunately it is possible that the Republican majority in the House of Delegates will resist these changes because, after the federal money expires in two years, employers would have to pay an additional $4.50 per worker per year if the new rules are not repealed.
I intend to vote with the Governor next week at the Reconvened Session of the General Assembly. I believe the Senate will approve the changes and we can all hope that the House of Delegates will do the right thing for Virginia’s families.