PHOENIX -- State lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to putting new hurdles in the path of those seeking jobless benefits, sending the measure to Gov. Jan Brewer.
The 34-24 party line House vote for HB2147 came over the objections of several Democrats who said there is no evidence of any sort of fraud that is letting those who are ineligible get a weekly check. And House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said his Republican colleagues were attacking those who just lost their jobs and were least able to fight.
"We're punishing those people with this bill," he said. "Those are the people we should be helping."
But Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said the evidence provided to lawmakers by businesses shows there is a problem.
He said some types of companies, including call centers, have people who show up for work for one or two days, then quit -- and file a request for unemployment benefits.
Under the current system, Farnsworth said, hearing officers at the state Department of Economic Security tend to take the side of the workers, forcing the employer to prove that the person abandoned the job and is ineligible. And if the business cannot provide that proof, that employee's claim becomes part of their record and they are "dinged" with higher unemployment insurance premiums.
"I say that is baloney," he said.
Under Arizona law, anyone who loses a job through no personal fault is generally entitled to collect half of what they were earning for up to 26 weeks. Benefits, though, are capped at $240 a week, the second lowest figure in the nation.
The original proposal by Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said that if an employer contends the worker quit, even just by making a verbal claim, it would be up to that worker to provide documentation to prove otherwise.
That, however, proved unacceptable to the U.S. Department of Labor. Officials from that agency said states cannot unilaterally put the burden on employees.
Approval by that agency is critical because it provides all of the $35 million in costs for DES to administer the unemployment insurance program.
The version that is making its way to Brewer eases that burden, but only a bit.
It says DES must require someone who seeks benefit "to provide documentation or information sufficient for the department to determine the individual's eligibility for benefits."
It no longer demands a worker come up with documents that may not be available. But it says if the employee can provide the information and fails to do so, DES can reject the claim.
The final version does require employers to provide "relevant documentation" to DES. At that point, the burden shifts to the worker to prove he or she is eligible.
But the legislation says that employer "documentation" can be as little as a written or even verbal claim about why, from the company's perspective, the worker left.
Farnsworth said that change is merited.
"In every other circumstance, if somebody's claiming they're entitled to something or if they've been wronged, or if they are entitled to a benefit, they have to show by their own burden they're entitled to something," he said.
Farnsworth added that, until now, that has not been the case with jobless benefits.
Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, said the system does get abused.
He said there are companies which are "begging for workers."
"But there are people that choose to be on unemployment rather than take some of those jobs," Montenegro said.
State unemployment insurance benefits are paid for out of a fund fueled by assessments that all employers pay on the first $7,000 of each worker's salary.
Rates range from a fraction of 1 percent for firms that have let few workers go to 5.4 percent for companies that have a high number of people who are laid off or determined to have been fired without cause.
Those benefits last 26 weeks. Various federally funded program have provided extensions lasting more than a year.