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Lawmakers Still Discussing Job-Search Incentives

State Rep. Charles Curtiss suggested this week the state could be doing more to encourage unemployment-benefits recipients to re-enter the workforce more quickly.

The Sparta Democrat raised the issue Tuesday during a Fiscal Review Committee meeting at the state Capitol, part of which included testimony from the interim head of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Management, the agency that handles unemployment claims.

The way he sees it, Curtis said, laid-off workers who receive consistent weekly benefits don’t have enough incentive to seriously look for a job. Even if it’s just enough to scrape by, Curtiss said, recipients will take their time finding work.

“There’s a lot of people, if they can live on $275 a week, they really aren’t interested in finding a job until that money runs out,” Curtiss told TNReport following the meeting. Even with state and federal requirements that workers prove they are actively searching for work, Curtiss said, the motivation still isn’t there.

“There’s a significant difference between going through the motions to look for a job—we’ve already got it in our rules, they’ve got to try three times in a certain period of time to make at least three contacts looking for a job,” explained Curtiss. “If I really don’t want a job, I know to ask for a job where I know I’m not going to get one. I’m trying to create an incentive where they are actually trying to find a job,” he continued.

Among the solutions that Curtiss suggested is a plan to front-load the benefits unemployed workers receive. “Maybe we need to give them $300-plus on the first few weeks and then start progressively giving them less money,” he said.

Curtiss also suggested the possibility of continuing to pay a portion of benefits to workers who take a low-wage job quickly rather than waiting around for higher paying openings.

“If someone’s got the opportunity to get a job that’s bringing in $25 or $50 or $100 more than they are actually getting on benefits, then maybe we let them take that job and we let them keep a certain percentage of those benefits for an extended period of time—maybe 60 days or 90 days—that encourages them, also, to take a job even though they’re not making much more money,” Curtiss told TNReport.

For his part, DOL Interim Commissioner Burns Phillips told Rep. Curtis that the department “welcome[s] all suggestions,” but, he said, “we are often restricted by what the federal government will let us do.”

Governor Haslam appointed Phillips to run the beleaguered agency in March following the resignation of previous Commissioner Karla Davis. Phillips spent nearly an hour in front of the Fiscal Review Committee Tuesday, updating lawmakers on the current state of the agency that has been the subject of scrutiny, investigations and allegations of mismanagement in recent years. Phillips emphasized recent improvements and praised agency staff, telling lawmakers “there is much, much good about the department.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has been leading the effort to tighten rules for administering unemployment benefits the past couple years. Last year the General Assembly toughened requirements on beneficiaries, like requiring them to keep a log of their efforts to find work.

Some 400 people were kicked off the program in a random check of more than 6,100 claimants during the first seven weeks the law was in place, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in December.

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