By Duane Marsteller, The Tennessean
Joseph Green wonders if he has a target on his back - and if it's about to get bigger.
Springfield man said he sometimes feels as if he's being labeled as a
second-class citizen because he has been out of work for nearly two
But with state legislators considering tougher rules
and more paperwork before the unemployed can collect benefits, plus a
proposal to block payments if new claimants fail job-related drug tests,
Green sees the political atmosphere going from bad to worse.
feel like it's discrimination, especially against us folks who live out
in the country where there aren't that many jobs," he said.
is among several states that have restricted or want to restrict
jobless aid by reducing benefits, tightening eligibility criteria and
mandating minimal job-search efforts and possible drug tests of
recipients, among other measures.
Those pushing the reforms in
Tennessee, primarily Republicans and business groups, argue that the
changes are needed to improve accountability and crack down on fraud and
"The Great Recession exposed holes in our unemployment
system, and these bills fill those holes," said Jim Brown, Tennessee
state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business advocacy group.
But critics, including labor leaders and some Democrats, say the measures are too broad and unfairly target the unemployed.
"They're looking at every angle they can in order to keep people from going on unemployment," said state Rep. Gary Moore,
D-Joelton, who is president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council.
"Sure there's people abusing the system, but you go after the abusers,
not punish everybody else."
Business fears costs
Tennessee lawmakers are considering a half-dozen bills that would
tighten eligibility and make it easier to deny benefits, which now
average $234 a week. The maximum benefit is $275 a week in the state.
of the measures originated from business owners, who frequently
complained about the unemployment program during a statewide series of
meetings with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey last year. Ramsey is championing several of the bills, which are making their way through committees in the legislature.
cited the case of a Maryville pharmacy worker who won unemployment
benefits despite being fired for theft and chronic absenteeism. In other
cases, seasonal workers routinely collected unemployment during their
offseason, he said.
"We don't need to be paying benefits to people
who were fired for stealing or not showing up for work," said state
Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, the primary sponsor of several of the
bills. "We're just trying to protect the integrity of the system."
advocates say they support fighting fraud and waste, but argue that
some of the proposals go well beyond tightening safeguards.
"It's bad," said Bill Bush, an attorney for Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands.
"This is the worst time to try to cut back on unemployment eligibility.
They're trying to make it harder for people to get unemployment
compensation. It will make them more desperate."
The bills are being debated as the statewide and county unemployment rates have eased lower.
Tennessee's seasonally adjusted jobless rate
was 8 percent for February. The Nashville-Murfreesboro region had 7.1
percent unemployment for February, the latest labor data show. Both
rates are 1.5 percentage points lower than a year earlier.
One act on fast track
The primary Tennessee bill, dubbed the Unemployment Insurance
Accountability Act, has cleared several committees and appears headed
for approval, Johnson said. However, the drug-testing requirement's
chances of passage are remote because of federal privacy concerns. Other
bills likely will pass, he believes.
Gov. Bill Haslam's
administration originated a proposal to expand the state's power to
collect benefit overpayments to recipients and will support "the will of
the legislature" on a measure denying benefits to workers fired for not
obtaining a required license or certification, spokesman Dave Smith
As for more-controversial proposals, Haslam said his administration is still weighing them.
in the middle of evaluating things right now, and we'll probably come
back next with our recommendations on which ones should be adopted in
the budget," he said after an appearance Friday at LP Field.
Tennessee isn't alone in targeting jobless aid.
South Carolina proposal would yank benefits to those who fail or refuse
an employer's drug test. A bill in Georgia's legislature would cut
benefits by up to half. Proposed legislation in Arizona would implement
drug testing and minimum work-search requirements.
Fallout from the recession is driving the efforts.
collect unemployment taxes from employers and use that money to pay
benefits. But they've been taking in less and paying out much more
because of prolonged high unemployment. More than 30 states have
borrowed from the federal government to pay benefits, the National
Employment Law Project said.
Tennessee briefly borrowed $50
million to cover a shortfall in 2010, after draining a $600 million
surplus in its unemployment trust fund in just three years. The state
also increased and expanded unemployment insurance premiums charged to
employers. The fund has since stabilized and now has a balance of $241.8
million, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said.
agency estimates the proposed bills would save at least $38.2 million
annually by disqualifying at least 6,000 people from benefits. About
110,000 Tennesseans now receive unemployment, spokesman Jeff Hentschel
Unemployed Tennesseans have mixed feelings about the potential changes.
Cannon, laid off from New Life Lodge in September, said she's fine with
the drug-testing, work-search and other potential requirements.
you're truly trying to find a job, you shouldn't have a problem with
it," she said while attending a job fair last week at Goodwill Career
Solutions in Dickson.
But Raymond Foreman, who lost his auto mechanic job four months ago, thinks "good people" will be hurt by the rules.
get that there probably are people sitting on the rolls getting
government checks and not doing anything," he said as he filled out a
job application at the job fair. " But there are other people - good
people - who are going to get hurt too."