Saying it will help prevent fraud, state lawmakers voted Wednesday to impose new burdens on some people seeking unemployment insurance.
HB 2147 requires those applying for benefits to provide documentation that they are eligible. Only those who lose their employment through no fault of their own are eligible for payments.
But the key is a new provision which says that benefits can be denied if the applicant does not provide the information.
The preliminary approval of the House on a voice vote came despite warnings by Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, 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. Department of Labor funds the entire $35 million annual cost of administering the state unemployment insurance program. The levy on employers covers only the actual benefits paid.
Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, did not dispute that the Department of Economic Security, which runs the unemployment program, has not yet gotten approval of his change.
He said, though, this is a watered-down version of his original measure which would have allowed an employer's claim of job abandonment, even if only verbal, would be enough to deny benefits until the worker proved otherwise.
More to the point, it did not make allowances for the possibility that all the records were in the hands of the employer. This change requires the worker to produce contravening documents only if he or she has the actual ability.
Anyway, Petersen said, this new version was borrowed from Oklahoma law, 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,'' complained Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, people who had jobs but now are dependent on getting that first check to pay the rent or make the car payment.
He called the 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 will send the measure to the Senate.
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 that law caps benefits at $240 a week, the second lowest in the entire 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.