After almost a year of Republican lawmakers complaining that the state’s unemployment system is too lax, Gov. Bill Haslam is signing three bills into law that stiffen rules for people seeking benefit checks.
The bills come as the state’s unemployment rate drops below the 8.2 percent national average to 7.9 percent after skyrocketing into double digits with most of the nation during the peak of the economic recession.
“One of the things you want to make certain you do throughout all this is make certain the process, which is a valuable one, gets protected,” Haslam told reporters after signing the legislation at a Nashville sign company Wednesday. “Protecting benefits for the people that deserve them is a very important part of what we do.”
The proposals came in large part at the urging of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has taken a leading role in pushing the overhauls. He spent much of his “Red Tape Road Tour” last year asking businesses what they want out of state government. At the same time, House Republicans surveyed other employers.
Both camps reported stories from business owners that some job candidates delayed taking jobs while they milked their unemployment benefits, or workers who were fired for just-cause were still able to get on the beneficiary rolls.
“It will protect the integrity of the process yet at the same time make sure that those who truly need the benefits will get the benefits,” Ramsey said at the ceremonial signing, adding the goal is to make sure the jobless see their unemployment check as “a benefit and not a lifestyle.”
The National Federation of Small Business Tennessee chapter, which teamed up with Ramsey in his Red Tape tour, conducted its own informal employer survey and also found that issues with the unemployment benefits system rank high among business owners’ concerns.
“The bills plug holes exposed by the great recession, like ensuring more workers are actively looking for work,” said Jim Brown, executive director of Tennessee’s NFIB.
“I know that can be a controversial subject, but this will help many unemployed individuals return to the workforce sooner, which is good for them, it’s good for their families and it’s good for their communities,” he added.
The most significant changes to state law are found in the “Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012.” The measure creates a broader definition of “misconduct” that will disqualify applicants from benefits if they were fired for cause. Under the new law, “misconduct” is defined as:
- Conscious disregard of the rights or interests of the employer
- Deliberate violations or disregard of reasonable standards of behavior that the employer expects of an employee
- Carelessness or negligence of such a degree or recurrence to show an intentional or substantial disregard of the employer’s interest or to manifest equal culpability, wrongful intent or shows an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer’s interests or of the employee’s duties and obligations to the employee’s employer
- Deliberate disregard of a written attendance policy and the discharge is in compliance with such policy
- A knowing violation of a regulation of this state by an employee of an employer licensed by this state, which violation would cause the employer to be sanctioned or have the employer’s license revoked or suspended by this state
- A violation of an employer’s rule.
The laws also call for developing an electronic system the Department of Labor and employers can use to communicate notice of employee separation and challenges to benefits claims. The measures also tighten up the definition of a seasonal employer so workers can’t claim unemployment benefits if they knew their job would only last a few months out of the year.
Job seekers will also have to begin providing proof they made contact with three employers every week or visited their local career center in an attempt to find work. The department will be charged with auditing 1,000 of those reports each week and booting claimants who fabricate their work search.
The law also allows the department to deny claims to workers rejecting valid job offers or failing employer-mandated drug tests.
Lawmakers this year also approved a bill that would require welfare recipients to submit to a drug test if they have prior drug convictions or are red-flagged during department screenings for benefits.
While the state doesn’t currently make most government employees take drugs tests as a condition of getting or keeping their jobs, it offers tax breaks encouraging private-sector employers to demand their employees submit to urine sampling. An effort to require state lawmakers to take drug tests failed this year for lack of support among Republican legislators.
Although the proposals passed easily with bipartisan support in the House and Senate, only Republicans joined Haslam in his ceremonial bill signing. The governor only signed two of the three bills at the event Wednesday, although he expressed support for all three measures. The third bill with the most significant changes to state law, SB3658, was still being transmitted to the governor.
Andrea Zelinski and Alex Harris contributed to this report.