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Unemployment Agency Awards Benefits To People Fired For Misconduct

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File photo of job applicants. (Credit:  John Moore/Getty Images)

File photo of job applicants. (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A Senate subcommittee chairman wants to know why South Carolina’s unemployment agency awarded jobless benefits to people fired for misconduct, seemingly disregarding a law signed in June.

Sen. Kevin Bryant said he called a meeting Wednesday so the Department of Employment and Workforce can explain why 56 fired workers received the maximum 20 weeks of benefits in the week after a law took effect.

That law, given final approval in the waning minutes of the regular legislative session, calls for total, automatic denial of benefits to workers fired for misconduct.

“Some are more offensive than others. A handful are very obnoxious,” Bryant, R-Anderson, said Tuesday.

The chairman of a Labor Commerce and Industry subcommittee said one example involves an employee granted full benefits after being fired for having sex at work.

DEW spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell said the agency sent Bryant’s five-member panel information on 518 claims made in the week after Gov. Nikki Haley signed the law June 18.

Three-fourths of those had some type of ineligibility and were disqualified an average of 17 weeks. That means they received three weeks of checks on average, according to the Cabinet agency.

Bryant contends the average should be zero.

The law co-sponsored by Bryant gained steam after legislators learned DEW paid out $50 million in unemployment benefits to fired workers in the 2010-11 fiscal year. State law already completely disqualified people for gross misconduct but allowed a reduction of benefits ranging from five weeks to all 20, depending on the type of misconduct and severity. Bryant and Sen. Lee Bright, another member of the subcommittee, accused the agency of abusing that discretion and pushed for the automatic denial.

Broken down by category, nine of the 518 cases involved illegal drugs, 11 involved absenteeism for medical reasons, 13 involved gross misconduct — which can include theft, alcohol use and property damage — 48 were fired for cause, 304 were general misconduct, and 133 were deemed eligible, according to the agency.

Fairwell said she couldn’t get into the details of any case.

“Each case is decided on its own merit,” she said. “Each is certainly adjudicated using legal parameters.”

An advocate for the poor said there are always two sides.

The law defines automatic-denial misconduct as “willful and wanton disregard of an employer’s interests” or substantial negligence. It allows exceptions for extraordinary circumstances.

“Misconduct doesn’t mean making a mistake,” said Sue Berkowitz of Appleseed Legal Justice Center, adding she can’t comment on any allegation without knowing the details. “At some point, the Legislature has to decide not to micromanage. They can’t do policy by anecdote.

South Carolinaworkers who lost their jobs used to qualify for up to 78 weeks of payments: a maximum of 20 weeks through the state program, then 42 weeks of federally paid emergency benefits that Congress initially approved in 2008, plus 16 more weeks of federally funded extended benefits because of the state’s chronically high jobless rate.

But starting Jan. 3, the maximum will be the 20 weeks of employer-paid benefits governed by state law. That’s due to the state’s improved jobless rate a federal law that phased out emergency benefits.

Those who newly filed for claims in early August are eligible for a maximum of 22 weeks of benefits.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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