BOSTON -- State lawmakers are moving ahead with a plan to extend federal unemployment benefits to jobless workers who fall just below the threshold to qualify.

On Wednesday, a legislative panel on Beacon Hill will hear testimony on a pair of bills that would bump up state unemployment benefits for jobless workers who get less than $100 per week. That's the minimum needed to qualify for the extra $300 per week in jobless payments from the federal government.

Supporters of the change say extending the benefits will help low-income workers who've fallen through the cracks.

"The fact is anyone who qualifies for state unemployment should have access to these federal funds," said Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, a sponsor of the House version of the bill. "These are low-wage workers or people who can only find part-time work -- the ones who are most vulnerable during this pandemic." 

Nguyen said other states, including New Hampshire and Rhode Island, have adjusted their benefits to allow more workers to qualify for the federal benefits.

Last month, lawmakers wrote to state Labor Secretary Rosalin Acosta requesting the changes, and talks with the Baker administration lead to the legislation being filed. 

"They told us they needed a legislative fix to give the governor authority to increase the minimum unemployment benefit so that people can qualify," Nguyen said.

It's not clear how many jobless workers have been disqualified because of the $100 threshold, which was set by the Trump administration, or how much it would cost the state to increase its benefits.

The new Lost Wages Assistance program only covered six weeks of extra benefits retroactive to Aug. 1, which most recipients received in a lump sum of $1,800. 

President Donald Trump authorized the extra payments in August by executive order amid a congressional impasse over extending federal pandemic unemployment payments. Trump directed $44 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief funds to extend the unemployment aid.

Congress approved an unemployment benefit of $600 per week at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, but those payments dried up at the end of July.

Massachusetts' jobless rate fell to 9.6% last month, from 16.2% in July, but more than 400,000 jobless workers are still filing for state unemployment benefits.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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