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Washington Lawmakers Just Passed a Bill That Could Have Big Impact on Restaurants

The bill reduces unemployment tax increases, which promises to save Washington businesses almost a billion dollars in 2021

The state capitol building in Olympia, Washington
The new Washington state legislative session has been an active one.

It may have flown under the radar compared to other COVID-related issues, but addressing unemployment taxes has been a top legislative priority in Washington state. Due to mass layoffs during last spring’s stay-at-home order, unemployment insurance taxes on businesses were set to increase substantially soon. But, on January 29, the Washington state legislature passed a bill that aims to blunt the impact, and it promises to save businesses about $920 million in taxes for 2021.

The bill includes an important provision to raise the minimum weekly unemployment benefit for the lowest-wage workers (from $201 to about $270 weekly). It also allows those who need to quit their jobs during future public health emergencies access to unemployment benefits. After passing both the state senate and house, Gov. Jay Inlsee is expected to sign the bill into law later this week, perhaps as early as Thursday, February 4.

For the past several months, Inslee has hinted that action on unemployment taxes was on the way as part of a broader effort to provide relief for businesses most impacted by COVID-related shutdowns. But, despite the potential for restaurants to save millions, some lawmakers — even those who voted yes — felt the bill didn’t quite go far enough, whether it was a desire to reduce the tax increases further or offer more protections for those who have lost their jobs.

“This is one step that will make a big difference for businesses in their quarterly payments,” says Senator Rebecca Saldaña, representing parts of Seattle and Renton. “But there is so much more that needs to be done on all sides to fix the safety net and make sure it’s working for our families.”

Any lingering criticism may dissipate if the state takes further action on economic recovery — and there is a larger package in the works. The house recently allocated $2.2 billion received by the federal government for pandemic relief, with $240 million set aside for more Working Washington small business grants, $365 million for housing and rent assistance, $65 million for the Washington Immigrant Relief Fund, and $50 million for child care providers. The legislation will now head to the senate.