Skip Navigation
Back to PolicyBot

Proposed Violence Against Women Act Revisions Could Cost States Billions in Unemployment Benefits

April 29, 2020
By Edward E. Bartlett

Legislators in many states are considering bills that would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on the state level, jeopardizing the solvency of state Unemployment Insurance trust funds

Legislators in many states are considering bills that would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on the state level, jeopardizing the solvency of state Unemployment Insurance (UI) trust funds.

Though the condition of the trust funds has improved since the Great Recession, many states’ funds continue to experience severe financial pressures. In 23 states, the UI funds are below the recommended minimum solvency standard, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s “State Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund Solvency Report 2019.”

Insolvency means these states cannot cover all UI benefit claims during a recession, or even an economic slowdown. Notably, the federal government has intervened to cover unemployment claims during the coronavirus crisis. California’s fund is in the worst financial shape. UI funds in another eight states and the District of Columbia are teetering on the brink of insolvency.

The provision of the Social Security Act covering UI defines domestic violence as “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty” (Sec. 408(a)(7)(C)(iii)) and classifies it as a hardship exception to the normal requirement that an unemployment recipient must have been laid off involuntarily or left their job voluntarily with good cause.

Expansive Definition of ‘Domestic Violence’

The Violence Against Women Act, first enacted in 1994, requires Congress to pass reauthorizing legislation every five years. Each time the VAWA has been reauthorized, Congress has expanded the law’s definitions, reach, and spending.

Concerns about the House bill (H.R. 1585) center on two provisions that dramatically expand the definition the of “domestic violence,” and a new entitlement to unemployment compensation.

The definition of domestic violence would include behavior involving the use or attempted use of “verbal, psychological, economic, or technological abuse,” under the House-passed bill. Verbal and psychological abuse are not defined, leaving state agencies or the courts to decide what they mean. “Abuse” could come to mean anything from giving a partner the silent treatment to name-calling. These vague definitions could be exploited to treat the parties involved according to political alliances instead of unbiased justice.

This unlimited definition of abuse could be used to qualify people for unemployment when they would not normally be eligible. The House bill includes a section on “Entitlement to Unemployment Compensation” for domestic violence victims, which states, “no person may be denied compensation under such State law solely on the basis of the individual having a voluntary separation from work if such separation is attributable to such individual being a victim of sexual or other harassment or survivor of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking” (Title VII, Section 703(a)).

Problematic Senate Bills

H.R. 1585 was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on April 4, 2019 on a mostly party-line vote, with Democrats supporting the bill. Attention has now shifted to the U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.

Seven months after the House passed H.R. 1585, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced her bill (S. 2843) to reauthorize the VAWA. The proposal, which is partly modeled on the U.S. House bill, contains the same expansive definitions of “domestic violence.” The bill also specifies that the definition of domestic violence would preempt state law: “Any law, collective bargaining agreement, or employment benefits program or plan of a State or unit of local government is preempted to the extent that such law, agreement, or program or plan would impair the exercise of any right established under this title or the amendments made by this title.” (Sec. 703(d)(2)).

Instead of the sweeping “voluntary separation from work” language featured in the House bill, Feinstein’s proposed legislation relies on the existing unemployment provisions and exceptions in the Social Security Act (section 303(a)(4)(B), as amended).

One week later, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) introduced her version of VAWA reauthorization (S. 2920). Ernst’s bill also contains the unclear domestic violence language: “verbal, psychological, economic, or technological abuse” (Sec. 2(a)(J)), but it does not have the problematic unemployment entitlement provisions found in the House and Feinstein bills. Even so, months later, the Ernst bill had only 12 Republican cosponsors. All 47 Democratic senators have signed on to the Feinstein bill.

Ballooning Unemployment Entitlement

In 2018, total unemployment benefits in the United States amounted to $27.5 billion. The new UI entitlement provisions in the House bill would likely cause benefit payouts to balloon by 10 percent, the Coalition to End Domestic Violence estimates, thereby requiring state UI funds to pay out at least $2.75 billion in additional benefits each year.

Passage of the Feinstein bill would also increase UI payments, although less than the House bill would.

State officials should be alert to the provisions in these bills that will likely increase benefit costs for their trust funds by billions of dollars while doing little to stop domestic violence.

Edward E. Bartlett (edwardbartlett@comcast.net) is president of the nonprofit organization Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. An earlier version of this article was published by RealClearPolicy. Reprinted by permission. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the position of SAVE.