By Seanna Adcox
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- A state with chronically high unemployment is making it tougher for the jobless to draw benefits by trying to force people to take lower-wage jobs and making it easier for laid-off workers to be declared ineligible.
New policies at South Carolina's Department of Employment and Workforce require people to accept job offers that pay incrementally less than their previous wages - eventually leading to minimum wage - and reducing the number of weeks someone let go for misconduct can receive benefits.
Department director and Maj. Gen. Abraham Turner told a state Senate committee Thursday that the policies begin immediately, but technology upgrades needed for the job-offer-acceptance plan are expected to take six months.
Turner said it's about providing an incentive to the jobless to get busy finding a new job, not turning down offers.
"We're trying to prohibit that person drawing unemployment from sitting back and not aggressively going after the jobs," said Turner, who took the agency's helm in September. "The jobs are there."
Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, questioned that assertion, given the state's unemployment rate.
South Carolina's unemployment rate is 9.9 percent and has not been below 9 percent in three years. The average unemployment benefit payment in South Carolina is $235, ranking 45th nationwide. The maximum someone can receive is $326 weekly, which equates to a salary of less than $17,000.
Sue Berkowitz of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center said it was unfair to think people are refusing jobs to collect unemployment benefits "because they somehow enjoy living on a wage that doesn't support them."
Under the policy, the longer someone is unemployed, the lower the salary they must accept in a job offer. After four weeks, they must take a job offering 90 percent of what they were making. The percentage drops every four weeks, to 70 percent after 16. After federally paid extensions kick in at 20 weeks, it would eventually drop to minimum wage.
The system expects businesses to notify the state when it has offered a job to someone collecting unemployment. The agency could not require employers to participate, but Turner said he believes businesses will welcome the plan because reducing the number of unemployed people would lower their unemployment insurance taxes.
Leventis called it social engineering.
"What you're about to do with folks is disestablish all the credentials they've ever had. Now they're in food service when they used to be making $80,000 a year and will never be viable to compete in that area again because South Carolina decided to do a social experiment," he said.
But Republican senators said plenty of people are taking jobs they're not accustomed to in order to support their families during these tough economic times.
"I was raised that there's honor in hard work, no matter what it is," said Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson. "It's honorable to take a minimum-wage job if that's all there is."
Another policy change cuts length of benefits for employees let go for absenteeism, poor attitude, violating policies or poor work quality.
The change means they could get a maximum of four weeks of state-approved benefits. It could save an estimated $32 million, reducing employers' unemployment insurance taxes by 5 percent, he said.
But senators said that doesn't go far enough. Bryant noted those fired workers could still collect up to 61 total weeks of unemployment, when including federal extensions. He argued that workers fired for misconduct of any kind should be ineligible for benefits.
"We're going to reward you for not showing up to work?" Bryant asked. "If absenteeism isn't gross misconduct, what is?"
Gross misconduct already completely disqualifies people. The definition includes theft, alcohol use, property damage, assault, and insubordination. Bryant wanted Turner to change policy to also disqualify someone fired for misconduct.
Turner said that would require a change in state law. Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, said he plans to introduce the legislation to do so.
"Citizens around the state believe the unemployment system for most part is for people who lost jobs through no fault of their own," Bright said. "We're gotten to the point where we've diluted personal responsibility to be miniscule."
Other senators expressed concern about employers claiming a worker was fired for misconduct in order to get out of paying benefits, especially when it comes to a poor attitude claim. Turner said such cases are rare.
Berkowitz said absenteeism isn't as simple as just skipping work, but a worker could be fired for being absent while caring for a sick child or elderly parent.
"I don't know when people on unemployment became the new targets," Berkowitz said. "We're talking about people hurting and losing their homes and not being able to feed their families and losing their self-esteem. We're not taking into account these are real people's lives."
Under another policy change, people drawing benefits will be required to conduct at least one job search per week through the agency's online system.
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