COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Almost 79,000 unemployed South Carolinians will stop receiving federally funded weekly jobless benefits by year's end, state unemployment officials said Wednesday, because the state's jobless rate is improving and a new federal law is phasing out emergency benefits.
Also on Wednesday, the full Senate unanimously approved a bill disqualifying fired workers from receiving unemployment benefits.
South Carolina workers who lost their jobs have qualified for up to 78 weeks of payments: a maximum of 20 weeks through the state program, then 42 weeks of federally paid emergency benefits that Congress initially approved in 2008, plus 16 more weeks of federally funded extended benefits because of the state's chronically high jobless rate.
But starting Jan. 3, the maximum will be the 20 weeks of employer-paid benefits governed by state law.
"My heart goes out to those who are desperately trying to find work," said Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, who has been highly critical of jobless payments and believes the change will force some to find a job.
State officials told his Senate subcommittee their agency is offering job coaching services to the 6,500 residents affected by the jobless rate improving to 9.3 percent, which is down incrementally from 10.5 percent last July and a high of 12 percent in December 2009. While the state's jobless rate still ranks high at 43rd, the long-term improvement triggered the ineligibility for extended benefits.
That affects workers who have been without a job for between 62 and 78 weeks — those last 16 weeks. Those residents will stop getting checks the week ending April 7, said Laura Robinson, assistant executive director at the Department of Employment and Workforce.
The voluntary, one-on-one job coaching services offered April 9-13 in offices statewide will include help preparing resumes, career counseling, and job search and referral assistance. Those unable to make it those days can reschedule, she said.
An additional 72,500 who have been without a job for between 20 and 62 weeks will start coming off the rolls Saturday under the law Congress passed in February. Half of them will come off by late July. The federal government is paying for work preparation services for 55,000 of them, to include in-person training, online courses and webinars. The agency will provide the services to all, Robinson said.
Sen. Shane Massey said he believes that's a good use of money, provided the training is truly useful.
"We want people working and trained to enter the workforce," said Massey, R-Edgefield. "I think it's a legitimate service to provide ... if a little of job coaching allows them to get a job."
DEW Director Abraham Turner said he expects the unemployment rolls to drop from the current 80,000 to a maximum of 25,000 if the trend in the jobless rate continues.
That would represent $13 million less being distributed by the agency to residents. That's because the average jobless benefit is $236 a week in South Carolina.
The drop will have no effect on employers' unemployment insurance taxes, since the benefit programs ending in the state were federally funded.
Under the federal law which ends the emergency benefits initially approved in 2008 at year's end, the state must notify people they're losing their benefits and provide re-employment services. The state expects to receive $4.7 million from the federal government to pay for those services.
Meanwhile, the Senate voted 40-0 on a bill that would automatically deny benefits for misconduct. It allows exceptions for extraordinary circumstances.
DEW paid out $50 million in unemployment benefits to fired workers last fiscal year.
Their benefits are now reduced depending on the type of misconduct and severity, from five weeks up to complete disqualification of all 20 weeks. State law says workers fired for gross misconduct such as theft and drug use can't get benefits.
But Bryant says the agency isn't following that law and is abusing its discretion on the range of weeks.
The bill requires another vote before heading to the House. It's among a slew of proposals that would make it more difficult for the state's unemployed to collect benefits.
Other bills that have advanced to the Senate floor would prevent workers in part-time and seasonal jobs from receiving unemployment benefits, and require all applicants to pass a drug test to collect unemployment benefits — a requirement that would conflict with federal law.
The House is debating a bill that denies benefits based on employers' drug testing. Benefits would end if someone receiving unemployment payments fails or refuses to take a test a business gives as a condition of employment. The measure says a business can report it to DEW but isn't required. A vote on it was postponed Wednesday.
Last year, legislators approved cutting the number of weeks of state-approved benefits from 26 to 20, reducing the total number from 99 to 78 weeks when including the federally paid extensions.