Senate panel OKs changes to unemployment claims

Senate panel OKs bill shifting burden to unemployed to prove they should collect payments

Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) -- A pro-business measure moving forward in the Arizona Legislature would make it harder for recently unemployed people to obtain unemployment insurance benefits.

The measure would require unemployed workers to present documents showing they were fired before they can receive benefits. Under current law, the burden is on employers to fight fraudulent claims.

The Republican-led effort would prevent people who quit from collecting benefits, proponents argued. The proposed change follows complaints from business groups about workers who walk off jobs and then file for benefits. A Republican-led Senate committee approved the measure in a 4-3 partisan vote Wednesday.

Critics said it would be nearly impossible for workers to prove they were let go because employers often don't provide documentation informing workers of their dismissal.

"We are talking about individuals who are struggling day to day, not millionaires," said Democratic Sen. Ed Ableser of Tempe.

The Republican-led House passed the measure in a 36-23 vote along party lines in February.

The U.S. Department of Labor has raised concerns about the legality of the bill. Under federal law, applicants must have a lost a job through no fault of their own and be able to work to receive benefits. The burden of proof is not on the employee.

"It is the state's responsibility to make reasonable efforts to obtain the information necessary to determine whether an individual is eligible," federal officials wrote to lawmakers this week.

Thousands of people could be impacted by the proposed change. Arizona's unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in December, according to the Department of Labor.

Arizona is already tougher than many other states when it comes to unemployment claims. The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Arizona is $240. The national average has been $300 since 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

The number of people claiming benefits has gone down from a 2010 peak of more than 200,000 per month, to fewer than 75,000 in January, according to the state Department of Economic Security.

Under the measure, applications that don't include documents validating the unemployment claim would be deemed invalid. Employers would be allowed to claim that the employee submitted a verbal resignation to prove the worker voluntarily left the job. Employers also could avoid paying the claims if they say the worker skipped work.

"If you have an employee that walks out and doesn't come back, we believe the burden should be on that employee to prove or at least state why they believe they should be eligible for unemployment," said Eric Emmert of the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance.

An amendment to the bill approved Wednesday would require the state to make a final determination based on all submitted evidence, but critics complained that change does little to protect terminated workers.

Ellen Sue Katz, litigation director for the William E. Morris Institute for Justice in Phoenix, said the measure is a violation of federal law because it would allow the state to skirt its responsibility of evaluating each claim, which would overwhelmingly benefit employers.

"This bill rewards employers who have no written policies and do not give separation notices," according to a statement from the institute to lawmakers.

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Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva .

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