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Building a better unemployment system

Published (3/25/2010)
By Nick Busse
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Minnesotans lost in the labyrinth of the state’s unemployment insurance system might get some help from a bill that won division approval March 25.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Obermueller (DFL-Eagan), HF2781 is the House’s omnibus workforce development policy bill. It contains a number of provisions designed to make life easier for laid-off workers trying to access their unemployment insurance benefits.

Approved by the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Finance and Policy Division, the bill now awaits action by the House Finance Committee.

One provision would require each of the state’s 47 workforce centers to have at least one staff member on hand to answer questions about unemployment insurance. Obermueller says the current system, which relies on a central phone service to answer applicants’ questions, does an inadequate job of helping some people.

“We’re realizing that there’s some value in having someone in the center who can actually help person-to-person,” Obermueller said.

Along the same lines, the bill would create a staff of 10 unemployment benefit specialists within the Department of Employment and Economic Development. These staff members would help correct errors on benefit applications and resolve other issues that could lead to an unemployment claim being denied. Obermueller said simple mistakes such as an applicant checking a wrong box on their application often force them into a time-consuming appeals process.

“It’s somebody who can kind of take a second set of eyes on your case and say, ‘Hey, here’s the easy, obvious fix,’” Obermueller said. “It’ll actually save a lot of appeals, I think.”

A more controversial provision would make it more difficult for employers to deny a benefit claim because of employee misconduct. Current law states that employees who are fired for misconduct are eligible for unemployment benefits unless their conduct constitutes a “serious” violation of the employer’s standards of behavior. Obermueller said unemployment law judges often ignore that threshold when making determinations on benefit claims.

“It can’t just be that you deserve to be fired,” Obermueller said. “Do you also deserve the additional punishment of losing your unemployment benefits?”

The bill would make it clear that an employee’s conduct has to be very egregious in order for them to lose their eligibility for unemployment benefits. Obermueller believes it would merely be reaffirming the intent of the current law, but other House members disagree.

Rep. Sarah Anderson (R-Plymouth) argued the provision would have the effect of rewarding bad behavior. She unsuccessfully offered an amendment that would have removed it from the bill.

“I just don’t think that when it comes to individuals that have been that negligent… that they should qualify for unemployment insurance benefits,” she said, adding, “If someone intentionally goes against what is involved in their work on a daily basis, that is a bad employee.”

Another controversial provision would extend benefit eligibility to some temporary staffing agency workers who choose not to keep taking temp jobs.

With the job losses that resulted from the recent recession, Obermueller said many laid-off workers have taken temp jobs to get by. Under current law, those workers have to notify the temp agency within five days when a work assignment ends in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits. The problem, he said, is that some workers may prefer to go back to looking for permanent work rather than keep taking temp jobs. The bill would effectively remove the five-day rule for some workers, allowing them to resume searching for permanent jobs without losing eligibility.

“You have to keep looking for work, because otherwise you’re not eligible for benefits anyway, but you don’t have to go back to the temp agency. That’s essentially what this does,” he said.

Representatives from temporary staffing companies argue the provision could deal a devastating blow to their industry, which is already suffering because of the recession. Adding more of their workers to the unemployment rolls means they have to pay a higher unemployment tax rate.

“Those changes would end up costing our companies big time… at a time when we’re already laying off people,” said Dwayne Hendrickson, an executive at Masterson Personnel. He said the bill “unfairly and unjustly targets an industry that employs over 200,000 Minnesotans every day.”

Division Chairman Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) defended the provision, and said it stems from conversations some lawmakers have had with constituents who feel like they’re “locked in the temporary job system.”

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