A measure that requires terminated employees to prove they weren't fired for misconduct such as willfully disregarding regulations or chronic absenteeism in order to receive unemployment benefits passed a legislative committee Wednesday.
Backers said House Bill 1911 would cut down on fraud, which would result in more benefits being available for the state's unemployed.
Opponents said the measure, written by The State Chamber and others with business interests, would make it harder for the unemployed to receive money for food and housing costs.
The House of Representatives Economic Development and Financial Services Committee voted 8-4 to pass HB 1911. The vote was along party lines with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it. The bill now goes to the full House.
“This bill is a setup,” said Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, a committee member, calling the bill, by House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, a “piece of trash.”
Morrissette said unemployment benefits are needed for rent and food.
“That's a lifeline,” he said. “Those people live on those benefits.”
Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, who presented the measure for the speaker, said workers now may be fired for intentional wrongdoing.
The terminated employee would have to sign an affidavit stating he or she didn't commit misconduct as defined in the bill in order to receive unemployment benefits.
The measure does not affect workers involved in layoffs or business closings.
Now, unemployed workers file immediately for benefits with the state Employment Security Commission. An administrative judge eventually presides over a hearing to determine eligibility.
The unemployment benefits stop when a terminated employee is found to be ineligible, but the state doesn't take action to recover the money already paid to that employee, Echols said.
HB 1911 still would allow immediate benefits for terminated employees, but they would be required to sign an affidavit stating they didn't meet the criteria of misconduct, which would disqualify an unemployment benefit claim, he said. Misconduct — according to HB 1911 — includes excessive or unexplained absenteeism or tardiness, dishonesty, wrongdoing, violation of a law, and unsuitability for the required work.
“We don't need people cheating the system,” Echols said. “We've got to fix the fraud issue.”
Bill must pass review
HB 1911, in addition to needing to win the approval of the Legislature and the governor, also must pass a review by the Federal Employment Opportunity Commission because Oklahoma receives federal funds that make up part of the money paid in unemployment claims.
Echols said Oklahoma businesses are paying high unemployment rates caused partially by fraudulent unemployment benefit claims. The fraudulent claims also reduce the money available for terminated employees who deserve the benefits.
“If there's less money in the fund, benefits go down,” he said. “Those people that do deserve it are getting less money.”