State lawmakers voted to make it easier for full-time students to qualify for unemployment insurance.
The House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to legislation spelling out that the fact that someone is going to school does not mean they are presumed ineligible for benefits.
How many people that will affect is unclear. Steve Meissner, spokesman for the state Department of Economic Security which administers the unemployment insurance program, said it does not keep track of the number of requests by students for benefits and how often they are turned down.
But the possibility of more people getting benefits worries the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Lobbyist Michelle Bolton urged lawmakers to reject the change.
Benefits are available to those who have worked a certain number of hours during a 12-month period. Those applying need to show they were let go through no fault of their own.
And they need to show they are available for full-time work.
Meissner said DES currently presumes anyone who is going to school full-time is not “available.” But Rep. Barbara McGuire, D-Kearny, said while that may have been true at one time, that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
“I don’t live in a 9-to-5 world anymore,” she said. The same, said McGuire, is true of students: They are capable of taking classes at night and even online — and having a full schedule — while also holding down a job.
The problem, she said, is when they are laid off from that full-time job they have a hard time getting the same jobless benefits that a co-worker also fired at the same time will get.
“I know it is a reality because I know some people this has happened to,” McGuire said.
Her legislation, HB 2295, specifically bars DES from presumptively rejecting a claim solely because the person is a full-time student.
Bolton argued the legislation is unnecessary.
She said while the current law kicks out the applications of full-time students, it isn’t the last word. Bolton said they remain free to try to convince DES that they are, in fact, available for work.
But Bolton said she feared that altering the law would make more laid-off workers eligible for jobless benefits. And that, she said, increases the amount of money that has to be paid out of the benefits trust fund — a fund financed solely by premiums paid by employers.
Bolton noted the state’s high unemployment rate and prolonged recession already have drained the fund — the state will be borrowing money from the federal government — with premium increases already planned for next year. But Bolton told lawmakers she could not say how many more people might qualify for benefits if the law was changed or how that would affect costs.
The possibility of financial ripples was enough to cause concern for some legislators.
Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, agreed with McGuire that paying benefits to laid-off full-time workers regardless of their status as a students is “a matter of fairness.” But Ash said he could not support anything that might increase costs to business.
Rep. Carl Seel, R-Phoenix, agreed.
“It would be financially irresponsible to put a burden on the (unemployment) trust fund,” he said.
A final roll-call vote is needed to send the measure to the Senate.