South Carolina's unemployed are the focus of several bills in state Legislature

The State (Columbia, S.C.)February 1, 2012 

Some call it a business-friendly way to safeguard the ability of the state's unemployment system to pay benefits to jobless South Carolinians who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

Others say the S.C. Legislature has declared war on the state's unemployed workers.

Either way, big changes could be on the way governing who receives unemployment checks and what they must do to get them.

Several bills working their way through the State House would eliminate unemployment benefits to some workers who are fired from their jobs. Other bills would require those who get unemployment checks to pass drug tests and meet other guidelines.

Supporters say the bills would help businesses by reducing their taxes while also ensuring benefits go to only workers who have lost their jobs through not fault of their own.

The proposals include:

• A Senate bill, to be considered by a committee today, that would require any unemployed worker to pass a drug test before receiving an unemployment check. The committee also will consider other bills that would require the unemployed to volunteer in their community to get a jobless check, and deny benefits to part-time workers as well as workers fired for misconduct.

• A House bill, to be considered by a committee next week, would allow companies to inform the state when a prospective employee fails a drug test. That failure would trigger the loss of unemployment benefits.

• A House bill, which passed a committee last week, would penalize more harshly those who fraudulently receive jobless benefits.

“I keep thinking the victims of this economy are the people who have lost their jobs and are struggling,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which advocates for low-income South Carolinians. “Now, they find themselves the target, as if they’ve chosen to be unemployed.

“It’s very disconcerting. We’re so worried about the employers that we forget about the people.”

About 200,000 South Carolinians are unemployed, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. The average laid-off worker gets $236 a week from the state’s unemployment trust fund, money paid in by businesses.

While the state’s economy shows signs of improvement, its unemployment remains at 9.5 percent – a percentage point above the national average.

Businesses are feeling the crunch too due to the struggling economy. The state’s recently revamped unemployment benefits system requires about half of S.C. businesses to pay more into the state’s unemployment trust fund, according to the Workforce Department.

For state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, it boils down to the numbers.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates South Carolina paid $86 million in unearned unemployment checks last fiscal year to people who defrauded the system – 18 percent of all claims paid. The state also paid about $50 million in benefits to workers who were fired.

“That’s $136 million that was wasted. We’ve got to do a better job of safeguarding the system and helping our businesses,” said Bryant, who said he has heard from many frustrated business owners who say they have had to pay unemployment benefits to workers who were fired for sleeping on the job, using alcohol or using firearms.

“I have dozens of examples, and we need to fix it,” Bryant said, adding helping businesses is the best way to help workers. “If you lower taxes, they can hire more people and grow the economy.”

It also is not too much to ask those getting unemployment checks to submit to drug tests or volunteer in their community, said Bryant, who is co-sponsoring some of the bills. Last year, he led a successful effort to cut the amount of time that the jobless can collect state unemployment benefits to 20 weeks from 26 weeks. (Federal benefits extend payments over a longer period.)

“We’re paying them to stay home. There should be some activity required,” Bryant said. “It also gets the (prospective) employee out in the community, making contacts and helping our nonprofits.”

It is unclear whether many of the bills could be enacted even if they win legislative approval. Federal law bars states from putting conditions – such as drug testing or volunteering – on getting unemployment benefits, said a Workforce Department spokesperson.

And many lawmakers, primarily Democrats, plan to fight the proposals.

“There are lots of hardworking people, looking for jobs every day,” said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg. “They’re not drug addicts. They’re not alcoholics.”

Sellers said the bills are really about 2012 re-election grandstanding.

“It’s a re-election thing. They’re playing to their base,” Sellers said of legislative Republicans. “Thankfully, some (lawmakers) will become unemployed after the elections, and they can go volunteer.”

Lawmakers share part of the blame.

Years of underfunding the state’s unemployment trust fund – combined with the Great Recession’s record job losses – meant the state had to borrow more than $900 million from the federal government to continue to pay out jobless benefits.

To help pay that money back and make the trust fund solvent again, lawmakers approved changes to the amounts that the state charges businesses for jobless benefits. Now, businesses who use the trust fund the most – by discharging the most workers – pay the highest rates.

In return, businesses are putting pressure on the Legislature to make sure only those who legitimately have lost their jobs get unemployment checks.

Many of the businesses that are members of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce are worried about paying out money in lean times to undeserving people, said spokesman Darrell Scott.

“We gladly pay for those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and are looking for new jobs,” Scott said. “But those who are using drugs or get fired for misconduct, they should not be allowed to access the system.”

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