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Bilirakis pushes new law restricting jobless benefits

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Published:   |   Updated: April 6, 2013 at 04:47 PM
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U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, is pushing legislation to set a national standard that people fired for alcohol or drug abuse are ineligible for unemployment compensation.

Bilirakis, whose district includes much of northwest Hillsborough County, says the legislation is necessary to prevent unfairness to Florida taxpayers.

“When state and federal resources are strained, rewarding individuals who willfully violate the law and workplace policies is fiscally irresponsible and unfair to law-abiding citizens,” he said in a news release.

But some experts question whether the law is necessary. They contend that any individual fired for alcohol- or drug-related misconduct on the job would already be ineligible, and the law would infringe on states' authority to make employment law.

State laws control eligibility for unemployment compensation, and in all states, workers are ineligible if they're fired for misconduct. They're eligible only if they're fired because there's no work available.

Most states, including Florida, explicitly define misconduct as including drug or alcohol abuse.

But more than a third of states don't, creating an “unequal playing field” in which Florida taxpayers may be paying for benefits in other states that wouldn't be legal here, Bilirakis argues.

His bill would define misconduct to include using or being under the influence of alcohol or any controlled substance while working; possessing any controlled substance while at work; refusing to take an employer's drug test, or testing positive for a controlled substance.

But experts at the liberal-oriented Brookings Institution and the National Employment Law Project, or NELP, said the legislation would have little beneficial effect.

“This looks like low-hanging fruit from the political standpoint,” meaning it's politically popular, but it's “not an issue that makes a material difference to Florida taxpayers,” said economist Gary Burtless of Brookings.

Florida taxpayers don't pay for regular unemployment benefits in other states, said George Wentworth of NELP. Each state's taxes on its employers pay for its own regular unemployment compensation program, usually meaning the first 26 weeks of benefits.

In Florida, the Legislature has shortened that to 19 weeks or less.

Taxpayers nationwide do pay for federally funded “emergency” extensions of benefits now in effect. In Florida, the emergency benefits can add up to 27 additional weeks — or more in other states that haven't curtailed their own regular benefits.

But regardless whether it's explicit in state law, said Wentworth, “State regulations and case law in virtually every state will define misconduct to include drug- and alcohol-related offenses on the job.”

Meanwhile, states have varying laws on drug testing in the workplace, said Wentworth, a 35-year veteran staff attorney for the Connecticut Department of Labor. Setting federal standards on drug testing or misconduct would undercut their authority, he said.

“It's always been left to the states to define misconduct,” and states have varying laws on workplace drug testing, he said. “It would be very unusual” for the federal government to pre-empt those laws.


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