Senator, agency joust on jobless insurance rates

Critic predicts 12% hike, but agency says rates may be 12% lower

abeam@thestate.comSeptember 11, 2012 

Unemployment taxes for S.C. businesses could rise by as much as 12 percent next year because state officials are not enforcing a new state law, a state senator said Tuesday.

But officials at the state Department of Employment and Workforce, which administers the state’s jobless benefits, say they expect those tax rates to drop by 12 percent, adding they are enforcing the law.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a law that strips unemployment benefits from people who were fired for misconduct. State Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, and some other Republican senators say the state agency is not enforcing the new law properly.

But Laura Robinson, assistant executive director for unemployment insurance, said the agency is enforcing the law and is on pace to pay out between $70 million and $100 million less in jobless benefits this year because of it. Those decreased payments mean Robinson expects unemployment tax rates to decrease by about 12 percent.

“We expect the rates to go down, based on the benefits paid so far this year and the taxes collected,” she said.

Bryant disagrees, based on his assessment of a week’s worth of disputed jobless claims – claims from the unemployment agency’s first week of enforcing the new law. At a meeting last month, Bryant cited several cases where he said employees were fired for misconduct – for offenses ranging from cursing out a boss on Facebook to an alleged “booty call” while on the job – yet received full unemployment benefits.

“I see ... gobs of proof of misconduct that the benefits are still awarded,” Bryant said, adding he has not reviewed any unemployment claims since that first week of enforcement.

“If these taxes do go down more than I’m predicting, I would love to come before this committee and say, ‘I was wrong and the process is working,” he said.

Robinson said the state unemployment agency is improving in its performance and not making the same mistakes.

A big issue is how state officials are defining two words: “misconduct” and “cause.”

State law allows for a partial disqualification of unemployment benefits -- losing anywhere from five to 19 weeks -- if an employee is fired “for cause.” But the law calls for a full disqualification if the employee is fired for misconduct.

Bryant and others say they are concerned that unemployment officials are defining misconduct cases as instances where workers were “fired for cause” and, thus, only partially disqualifying benefits.

Robinson said the agency has to follow the law, but it does not define “misconduct” and “cause.” Said the state agency recently updated its policies to define dismissal for cause as “conduct that demonstrates a level of fault of the employee of deliberate disregard of the standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect.”

“We believe ... unemployment benefits are for people who lost their job for no fault of their own. We pay benefits to those people,” Robinson said. “Those who have a fault in losing their job, there is a penalty associated with that.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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