Sun, July 21

New legislation: Workers must prove their unemployment eligibility for benefits

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers are poised to make it more difficult for some people to collect unemployment benefits.

On a party-line vote, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Energy and Military approved a measure Wednesday to put the burden on the worker seeking benefits in Arizona to prove he or she was let go. That is a key shift from current practice where once someone applies for benefits it is up to the former employer to show the person is ineligible.

Arizona pays those entitled to benefits up to $240 a week, the second lowest cap in the nation.

Senators did agree to blunt the effect of HB 2147 after the U.S. Department of Labor, in documents obtained by Capitol Media Services, told state officials the version of the bill already approved by the House is illegal.

Robert Johnson, a supervisor of the agency's State Conformity and Compliance Team, said federal law prohibits states from putting the burden on the employee.

With that in mind, Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, added language which says that the Department of Economic Security, which administers the state unemployment program, must still make "reasonable efforts' to obtain information necessary to determine if someone is actually eligible.

DES lobbyist Kathy Ber said that new language appears to satisfy the Department of Labor. That is critical, as it is funding through that federal agency which pays the entire $35 million administrative cost of the program.

But Democrats on the panel refused to go along. Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, said the measure is "shifting the burden on those who are literally struggling to make ends meet.'

Republicans, however, said they were swayed by testimony from employers who complained they are beset with claims from workers who work for a few days, don't show up -- and then seek unemployment benefits.

"We believe that they have a burden, or should have a burden to prove that they're eligible for benefits,' said Eric Emmert, lobbyist for the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance.

Emmert acknowledged that people who have been fired or laid off, which generally would entitle them to unemployment insurance, may not have paperwork from a former employer proving they were let go. But he said the reverse can also be true.

"The employer oftentimes doesn't have the ability to demonstrate that the employee did not call, did not show or left his or her position,' Emmert said. "The employee should have the burden of proving that they are eligible for benefits.'

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said he did not need anyone to tell him the problem. Worsley, the founder of SkyMall, the ever-present magazine on airlines where travelers can order all sorts of items, said he saw it himself in his company's call center.

"The employer just has no way to fight this,' he said. "I was extremely frustrated because we lost every time.'

Worsley said he also is offended as someone who has been a Mormon ecclesiastical leader for eight years.

"We believe in our religion we help others help themselves,' he said. But Worsley said the state's unemployment system, even with its maximum benefits being the second lowest in the nation, works against that.

"I watch people set home for the entire length of their unemployment, at $6 an hour, because a call center job was not a whole lot more than that,' he said. "It was easier to set home and collect unemployment than to go get a job.'

State law entitles those who lose work through no fault of their own to get half of what they were earning for up to 26 weeks.

But the law provides a maximum weekly benefit of $240 a week. Only Mississippi provides less.

The issue of workers getting benefits to which they may not be entitled is of concern for employers because those benefits are paid from an account funded by a levy on employers on the first $7,000 of each worker's salary. The amount each company pays is based on how often it lets workers go, with the rate running from a fraction of 1 percent for those with the fewest layoffs to as much as 5.4 percent at the top end.