COLUMBIA, S.C. — Someone collecting unemployment would lose their benefits if they fail or refuse to take an employer's drug test under a bill approved Thursday by the South Carolina House.
The House voted 70-24 on a bill allowing an employer to report such a failure to the state's unemployment agency. It does not require them to do so.
The measure represents a back-door way of yanking unemployment benefits for failed drug tests. A bill up for debate on the Senate floor would require every applicant to pass a drug test to get benefits. But unemployment officials have told senators such a mandate conflicts with federal law.
The House bill involves only drug tests that businesses require as a condition of employment.
Democrats argued it's wrong to take a benefit away based on someone's refusal, saying that could be for various reasons, including offense at the requirement.
"We are grossly humiliating and demoralizing poor people," said Rep. Leon Howard, D-Columbia.
But the main sponsor, Rep. Eddie Tallon, said people receiving jobless benefits are supposed to be ready and able to work, and if they lose a job offer because of drugs, they shouldn't continue to collect.
"It's fundamentally not right," said Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a retired State Law Enforcement Division officer.
After Democrats raised privacy concerns — saying companies could deny jobs after performing other tests on samples that reveal, for example, a pregnancy or diabetes — Rep. Kris Crawford, R-Florence, put up an amendment barring businesses from using collected specimens to test for anything other than drugs. Under the approved change, violators could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by a $10,000 fine on the first and $50,000 on subsequent offenses.
Crawford, the Legislature's only medical doctor, agreed the concerns were legitimate, and said legislators should guard against such possible violation of privacy.
Democrats also argued that taking the benefit away could increase crime. They said removing the stable income source, however modest, from people who are desperate because they're out of work could cause them to steal to support themselves and their families. The average jobless benefit in South Carolina is $236 a week.
Tallon said that's ridiculous.
"They're already violating the law by using drugs," he said. "They're spending money they're supposed to be spending on their family on drugs."
Also on Thursday, the Senate approved and sent to the House a bill that would automatically deny benefits for misconduct.
DEW paid out $50 million in unemployment benefits to fired workers last fiscal year.
Their benefits are now reduced depending on the type of misconduct and severity, from five weeks up to complete disqualification of all 20 weeks. State law says workers fired for gross misconduct such as theft and drug use can't get benefits.
But Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, says the agency isn't following that law and is abusing its discretion on the range of weeks.
South Carolina workers who lost their jobs have been eligible for 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 because the state's jobless rate is improving and a new federal law is phasing out emergency benefits.
About 6,500 people who fall in that last 16 weeks of extended benefits will stop receiving money the week of April 7. An additional 72,500 who have been without a job for between 20 and 62 weeks will start coming off the rolls Saturday under the law Congress passed in February.
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