CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the Legislature assembles Monday for interim committee sessions, one measure under consideration could be a winner all the way around. It's about something called work sharing, which is a new -- for us anyhow --way of dealing with cyclical downturns in the economy while avoiding the negative consequences of layoffs.
With work sharing, employers would have the option to reduce hours instead of workers. They could allow workers to draw partial unemployment benefits for the lost time.
For example, if a coal mine or factory was having a tough year and was contemplating laying off 40 percent of workers, management could chose to reduce hours by the same percentage and keep everyone working. Those with reduced hours would in the meantime receive partial benefits to make up for some of the lost income.
This idea makes sense pretty much any way you look at it. When the economy goes temporarily south, as it periodically does, employers have often resorted to layoffs and brought workers back as conditions improved. However, it's a fact that some people who are laid off never return to their old job for a variety of reasons.
This means that businesses are at risk of losing skilled employees who have amassed a great deal of tacit knowledge about their jobs over the years. It takes a while to get good at something and it takes time and resources to train new workers. Turnover is expensive. Work sharing is a way of keeping people attached to the labor force, which is pretty important in West Virginia since we're lowest in the nation in workforce participation.
One other positive point for businesses is the fact that it is entirely voluntary. If West Virginia passed a work sharing bill, only employers could decide whether to take advantage of it.
For workers, layoffs are bad news any way you look at it. Families and communities suffer not just from lost income but from additional stresses that come in the wake of unemployment. Health and longevity can be impacted as well.
A great deal of research in the field of the social determinants of health has demonstrated that situations that reduce a person's sense of autonomy or control over one's life and limit the ability to fully participate in society activate the body's stress response, which can lead to increased risk of several types of diseases. Losing a job is one such situation. As recently as last week, this newspaper published an Associated Press article about studies linking joblessness to increased risk of heart disease.
This idea bridges partisan divides. Earlier this year, a bitterly divided Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, which included work sharing as one of its provisions. It has been embraced by think tanks as diverse as the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research.
As of this summer, 24 states and the District of Columbia have adopted work sharing. Some have had it since the 1970s. The new legislation, however, provides incentives for states to adopt the measure. West Virginia could receive around $4 million for startup, administrative and outreach costs if it enacts work sharing legislation by Dec. 31, 2014. Once it's going, work sharing would basically cost no more than traditional unemployment.