PHOENIX - A House panel voted Wednesday to require those seeking unemployment benefits to prove they were fired and did not just quit.
The 6-3 vote by the Commerce Committee came after restaurant owners and some business groups complained workers were abandoning their jobs and trying to collect payments. The issue is significant because the tax employers pay the unemployment insurance fund is based on how often workers are laid off and eligible to get weekly benefits.
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis said HB 2147 could put employees who have legitimate claims into a situation where they are denied payments. She said shifting the burden of proof is not fair.
But Rep. Tom Forese, R-Chandler, was adamant in support of the change. "I'm just shocked on how anti-business our country has become," he said.
"In the United States and Arizona, it's no longer what it used to be," Forese continued. "We need to change the tide and start to fight for the employer."
Under current rules, if there is a disagreement between the employer and the employee about the reason for the worker leaving, it is up to the employer to prove the person left without good reason, which would make him ineligible for benefits, said Tasya Peterson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Security.
HB 2147 says if the employer provides documentation that a worker either resigned voluntarily or abandoned the job, then the burden of proving otherwise shifts to the worker. However, it defines "documentation" to include a simple verbal or written statement by the employer saying why the worker left, and recognizes the employer's assertion the employee left on his or her own as evidence, which then requires the worker to provide proof to the contrary.
McCune Davis said one flaw is the employer controls all the documents, which could leave the workers with nothing to to show they did not voluntarily resign.
But Eric Emmert, a lobbyist for the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance, said that does not necessarily mean the worker will be denied benefits.
"It is up to the Department (of Economic Security) to make the judgment call," he said. Emmert said the change simply requires those seeking payments to provide some proof rather than "relying on the business on the back end to fight it."
The measure now goes to the full House. But even an anticipated affirmative vote there and concurrence of the Senate and governor might not resolve the issue.
McCune Davis said she believes that the U.S. Department of Labor, which helps the state pay for administering jobless claims, may object to changing the burden of proof from employers to employees.
Peterson said the DES staff already has submitted the proposal to federal officials who have determined the measure, in its current form, "is not in conformity with federal unemployment insurance law." She said she anticipates changes will be made to the measure on the House floor.