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11:12 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Column: AZ lawmakers are abusing workers

Every GOP member of the state Legislature just voted to kick working people when they're down. This fantasy that the GOP can appeal to more voters will never work as long as every time there's a real choice to be made affecting ordinary people they stack the deck one more card against them.

Let's run quickly through the details and then get to the heart, the meaning, of this action.

A few call centers near Phoenix complained people would work for a couple of weeks, then quit and apply for unemployment insurance they hadn't earned. Both the complaint and the legislative response are full of contradictions. Someone who only worked a couple of weeks for a company does not get their rate of UI benefits based on that. It's based on work history over a one-year period starting the quarter before the layoff. The only thing the last employer might have to do is document what kind of termination it was, a layoff or quitting or being fired. A high turnover business might have to do that a lot, but that's their business.

The other standard harp, thrown in for good measure, is about low-wage people quitting so they can make almost as much on UI. Bunk. They can get only half of what they were making during that year window, maxing out at $240 a week or $6 an hour. For a minimum wage worker the benefit is just $3.90 an hour. Good luck making rent.

In response the Legislature created a bill that puts the burden of proof on the employee. Currently, you apply for UI, the Department of Economic Security verifies your income over that period and asks the last employer about the kind of separation. If the employer says it was not a layoff, and the employee says it was, the ruling favors the employee, unless an appeal can prove otherwise. As this bill moved forward, DES even offered to remove that favoring of the employee, leaving it neutral and up to what comes out of appeals.

The Legislature, though, wouldn't be happy until the table wasn't just tilted against the employee, it was on top of them and had them pinned. The new law requires a UI applicant to bring documentation, right up front, proving they were laid off. A lot of companies don't give written notice because lawyers tell them not to. The worker probably won't know they're going to get rejected, which will delay benefits. So what then? They have to go back to the employer and ask? If there's any bad blood, if the employer is listening to its lawyers, if the company has gone under, they won't give such documentation. Plus, the employer has a financial incentive to avoid claims because their payments into the UI fund are affected by the number of claims.

The bill also allows the employer to simply state, verbally, that the employee quit or didn't show up, and that has to be accepted. I can hear the wrestling ref now, "1, 2, 3. Pinned!"

A further contradiction: Since the Federal Department of Labor said the bill would probably be illegal our Legislature added a disclaimer saying that, no matter what the bill says, DES still has final say about whether a claim is justified. So either it will be overturned, or it contradicts itself and is meaningless, or its effect will have to be sorted out.

Our local legislators, House Speaker Andy Tobin and Rep. Karen Fann and Sen. Steve Pierce all voted for it. The vote in both houses was a straight party line vote, GOP for it, Democrats against it. Governor Brewer signed it.

All of those details aside, and even this whole episode aside, it's the same maddening result every dang time. There are lots of GOP voters who wouldn't act this way but the people they keep putting into office do. Every time there's a tradeoff the workers and ordinary people will lose. If ordinary people get asthma from pollution but the filtering costs something, the asthma sufferers lose. If workers request the UI (which we all already pay for as a passed-along cost of the goods or services we purchase) when they need it most, if that's a little inconvenient, if there's a way to push some more off, the workers don't just lose, they are aggressively pursued like an enemy on the run.

Am I being over the top? My editor probably wishes this was toned down. But you know what? Look at the record. When else in our memory have such blatant assaults on the interests of ordinary people been tolerated? Who else among the elected would create such regular, aggressive, harmful acts against working people but the current GOP leadership? It's not over the top. It's spot on. Regular readers know that when I can I find common ground and try for reasonable discussion, but when they keep doing things like this it needs to be called out.