JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Proposed changes for the unemployment compensation program awaiting action by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon are designed to avoid a several hundred million dollar price tag, and they could make it harder for workers to receive jobless benefits if they are released from their positions after having unapproved absences or violating company rules.
Legislation that was needed to comply with recent federal requirements was combined with an effort to broaden the definition of "misconduct" in the workplace. Jobless benefits can be denied to workers released because of misdeeds that quality as misconduct.
Tracy King, vice president of governmental affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said expanding what constitutes misconduct would help protect the integrity of the unemployment system.
"This isn't a social program for people who get fired from work," King said Wednesday. "There is a very definitive reason that this program was set up. And through the court system (the definition of misconduct) has been narrowed to the point that it is seen by the employer community to be severely abused."
Misconduct would apply when workers knowingly disregard their employers' interests, violate no-call and no-show policies or break a company rule unless it can be demonstrated the rule is unlawful or that the employee could not reasonably have known about the rule. State law currently defines misconduct as "wanton or willful disregard" of an employer's interest, a deliberate violation of an employer's rules and a disregard of standards of behavior which an employer has the right to expect.
Opponents of broadening the definition of misconduct said it could cause some workers to lose unemployment benefits if they are fired for less significant reasons.
Lawmakers passed the unemployment measure before their mandatory adjournment last week, and Nixon has until mid-July to take action. He can sign the measure, veto it or allow it to take effect without his signature.
Other parts of the unemployment legislation were proposed to meet federal requirements created when President Barack Obama signed the Trade Extension Act of 2011. Failing to comply with those requirements could carry a financial cost. Officials said Missouri businesses could lose $859 million in federal tax credits and that state government could lose federal funds for programs such as the administration of the unemployment system and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Missouri's legislation would count a newly hired employee as someone who has not previously worked for the business or who has been separated for at least 60 consecutive days. It also would require a 15 percent penalty for wrongly received benefits deposited in Missouri's unemployment compensation fund.
In a financial analysis of the legislation, officials reported that the state already has levied a penalty of 25 percent for the first offense and 100 percent for subsequent instances. The state deposits the money into an account used for administrative expenses of the division of employment security. The legislation would redirect a portion of the penalties to comply with the federal requirement.
The final piece of the federal unemployment measure would prohibit removal of charges from an employer's account if a payment was made erroneously and it is determined the business failed to respond timely or adequately and has a pattern of doing that.
The unemployment legislation is HB611.