Missouri GOP senators pass changes to jobless benefits

Thursday, March 13, 2014 | 10:33 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Stymied once by a veto, Republican senators passed legislation Thursday that again tries to limit unemployment benefits for people fired for repeatedly missing work or other alleged misconduct.

The legislation is a slightly revised version of a bill vetoed last year by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who cited concerns then that it could conflict with federal law and put businesses in jeopardy of having to pay to hundreds of millions of dollars more annually in federal unemployment insurance taxes.

Republican lawmakers and business groups contend that court rulings have gradually eroded Missouri's current law allowing unemployment benefits to be denied to workers dismissed for misconduct.

"We have situations where people are getting caught stealing on camera and still getting unemployment benefits," said Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, the sponsor of the bill. "We have people that are falling asleep at work repeatedly, not showing up for work — these people are getting benefits."

But Nixon has said the Republicans' proposed solution could carry unfair results for workers. In last year's veto message, he pointed to several hypothetical examples where the new definition of misconduct could be cited to deny benefits to parents who miss work to rush a child to an emergency room or to workers accused of dressing inappropriately or bad-mouthing their bosses during non-work hours.

The legislation "just puts too much responsibility on the employee and relieves the employer of a lot of responsibilities," Sen. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis, said during debate this week.

The Republican-led Senate voted 22-9 along party lines Thursday to send the legislation to the House.

Current Missouri law defines employee misconduct as "wanton or willful disregard of the employer's interest," a deliberate violation of rules or a disregard of behavior standards.

Republicans want to expand the misconduct definition to specifically include absences, tardiness and, among other things, actions that occur outside the workplace or normal working hours.

Nixon said last year's bill went too far. He said that what employees do on their own time shouldn't be used as a basis for denying them unemployment benefits, except in narrow circumstances covered under existing law.

The vetoed bill sought to redefine misconduct to include actions "reasonably related to the job environment," but this one instead says misconduct includes an act "that is connected with work" — a phrase also included in federal law. The significance of that proposed wording change is unclear.

A Nixon spokesman declined to comment Thursday about whether the governor still has concerns about the legislation.

Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, said supporters are hoping to hear from federal officials about how they would interpret the new wording.

"This bill is an attempt to go as far as we can go, without stepping over the line and tromping on the federal law, to try to bring some sanity to that system," McCarty said.

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