PHOENIX - Saying the measure would help fight fraud, state lawmakers voted Wednesday to impose new burdens on some people seeking unemployment insurance.
The bill, HB 2147, would require people applying for benefits to provide documentation that they are eligible, and if they don't provide that information, their benefits could be denied. Only those who lose their employment through no fault of their own are eligible for unemployment payments.
The House's preliminary approval on a voice vote came despite warnings by Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, that the change could put Arizona in violation of federal laws. She said those laws generally require the employer seeking to deny benefits to prove that the worker quit of his or her own volition and was not fired or laid off.
That approval is crucial: The U.S. Labor Department pays for the entire $35 million annual cost of administering the state unemployment insurance program. The levy on employers covers only the actual benefits paid.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, did not dispute that the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which runs the unemployment program, has not yet gotten approval of his change.
But he said this proposal is a watered-down version of his original measure, which would have allowed an employer's claim of job abandonment, even if only verbal, to be enough to deny benefits until the worker proved otherwise.
His original proposal also did not make allowances for the possibility that all the records were in the hands of the employer. Now, his bill would require the worker to produce contravening documents only if he or she has the actual ability.
Anyway, Petersen said, this new version was borrowed from the law in Oklahoma, whose unemployment program has been approved by the Department of Labor.
McCune Davis, however, said the borrowed language comes from that state's law dealing with ongoing payments. This measure affects a person's ability to get even an initial check.
"We are attacking a lot of working-class people," said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, pointing in particular to people who had jobs but now are dependent on getting a first unemployment check to pay the rent or make the car payment.
He called the proposed new barriers "a travesty."
But Petersen cited testimony from business owners, notably restaurants, who said workers are quitting after a couple of weeks, claiming they were let go and then collecting jobless benefits "without an opportunity for the employer to demonstrate otherwise."
"It is a substantial amount of fraud and abuse that is going on," added Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott.
A final roll-call vote in the House will send the measure to the Senate.
BENEFITS AT A GLANCE
Under state law, individuals who lose their job through no fault of their own are generally entitled to one-half of their pay for up to 26 weeks. But the law caps benefits at $240 a week, the second-lowest amount in the nation.
The cost of the benefits themselves is borne by a levy paid by employers on the first $7,000 of each worker's salary. The exact amount of that is based on each company's employment history, with those who have the fewest layoffs paying a fraction of 1 percent and those at the other extreme paying as much as 5.4 percent.