Arizona unemployment 2013: State Senate OKs changes to unemployment claims

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

The measure would require unemployed workers to present documents showing they were fired before they can receive unemployment insurance 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 argue. 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 Arizona House of Representatives passed the measure in a 36-23 vote along party lines in February.

The federal Department of Labor has raised concerns about the legality of the bill. Under federal law, state officials are tasked with verifying unemployment claims, not employers or applicants.

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. The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Arizona is $240.

Under the measure, applications who don't include documents backing 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 of 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," the institute wrote in a statement to lawmakers.

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