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Lawmakers Consider Stronger Monitoring of Unemployment Recipients

Employers are having difficulty attracting workers whose unemployment has not run out, lawmakers believe, and want to require beneficiaries to prove they’re trying to get a job.

After lots of talk last year about problems within the state unemployment system, Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly are ready to push legislation requiring that people collecting benefits be more accountable for their work searches.

“When you’re on employment, you’re supposed to be looking for a job, and right now it’s more or less the honor system,” said Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. He is sponsoring a bill to make unemployment-benefits recipients keep track of where they submit applications each week and provide that information to the state online.

The proposal is meant to ensure people don’t draw unemployment any longer than necessary, he said.

“The burden should be on the applicant because that’s the condition upon receiving your benefits, is that you be looking for a job,” said Lt, Gov. Ron Ramsey. “Anecdotally, we’re pretty confident there’s a lot of folks who aren’t doing that. They’re just sitting at home collecting their benefits.”

Republicans met with Tennessee employers during a series of legislative jobs task force meetings in 2011, as well as part of Ramsey’s Red Tape Road Tour in 2011.

There are three overlapping proposals in the works, including the “Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012,” which would require people collecting benefits to submit on a weekly basis the names of three employers where he or she sought work.

Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters he’s a fan of the unemployment insurance reforms, although admitted his staff still needs to research the price tax first.

“I think the direction that Lt. Gov. Ramsey is going is 100 percent right,“ Haslam said after commemorating Andrew Jackson’s 245th birthday at the Hermitage Thursday. “I told him I would do our homework with our departments to try to understand cost to state government, impact and we’d be back to weigh in on that probably next week.”

The central piece of legislation, HB3431, would also charge the Department of Labor and Workforce Development with auditing 1,000 submissions a week and kick anyone submitting fraudulent job search reports off the rolls for at least eight weeks, redefine “misconduct” that disqualifies workers from benefits and ban people who are incarcerated from collecting unemployment while behind bars.

A yet-to-be-added amendment would further change the unemployment law to set wage standards for jobs that are deemed “suitable” for unemployed workers to accept.

The measure passed a House subcommittee Wednesday, and heads to the Consumer Affairs committee Tuesday, March 20. The bill stands now with a $122,000 price tag, but would save an extra $100,000 annually for the Unemployment Trust Fund, according to state officials.

Unemployment changes didn’t make the cut in a House Republican jobs task force that met last fall, but task force chair and bill sponsor Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir, said those meetings contributed to his desire to edit the system.

“We understand there are people who do need this. We’re not taking this away,” Matlock said about unemployment benefits. “We’re looking for legitimate folks who need it.”

Another bill he and Johnson are sponsoring, SB3657, would allow employers to ask the department to classify them as seasonal employers. The measure would limit how much seasonal employees can collect in unemployment benefits, saving the state an estimated $2.2 million annually — although it would cost over $1 million in one-time startup costs. The measure has collected dust in House and Senate committees for weeks but is expected to move later this month.

SB3659 would require the state to build a portal for employers to send and receive information about employees who have quit, were laid off or fired. It would also allow employers to contest former workers’ benefits online.

However, the governor flagged that bill last month based on concerns about its price tag, $115,000. House lawmakers are sending this bill to the Finance Committee, although it awaits a vote in the Senate Commerce Committee.

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