Some jobless Texans cash in on one-punch benefits

Texans who want to cash in on being jobless only have to punch one number on an automated telephone system for the state to OK their unemployment benefits. They no longer have to make more than one contact in their job search each week and the Texas Workforce Commission does little or nothing to verify unemployed Texans are even looking for work. What’s more, the commission doesn’t enforce some state laws, such as requiring all claimants to register with a system that matches them to available jobs, or its own rules on reasonable wage demands by unemployed Texans. That results in little or no incentive for people to find new jobs. In fact, despite Texas having one of the lowest jobless rates in the country’4.4 percent in June’it ranks among the worst 10 states for the number of weeks claimants collect unemployment benefits. Texans stay on unemployment benefits an average of 15.9 weeks compared to 14.5 nationwide. The number of weeks Texans collect unemployment benefits is a problem across the state, not just in areas of high unemployment. Even in Austin, where unemployment is at 2.2 percent and jobs are plentiful. Texans stay on unemployment benefits an average of more than 14 weeks before finding a job. More Texans than citizens in any other state use all their available benefits before they find another job. Fifty-four percent of unemployed Texans exhaust all their benefits before they go back to work’the worst record of any state in the nation. Little wonder that Texas businesses are complaining. At state-sponsored business summits across the state in 1999, hundreds of Texas businesses ranked the cost of unemployment insurance a top concern. Why’ State and federal unemployment taxes charged to Texas employers are paying 100 percent of the costs for the state’s unemployment compensation program’a startling $972 million in 1999. But despite the fact that they’re footing the bill, employers’ concerns about the way the unemployment insurance claims are handled are often overlooked or even ignored outright. Here’s how the current unemployment insurance system operates: ‘ Jobless Texans file unemployment claims over the phone by simply punching a button and promising they looked for a job that week. In the past, claimants had to list each week how many companies they contacted, the names of the companies, and when they contacted them to keep getting benefits. ‘ Until the rule was changed in October, claimants could file unemployment claims by phone, but employers had to protest the claims in writing. Employer critics claimed that it would be too hard to document disputed claims if businesses filed protests by phones. But they couldn’t explain why they would be any harder to track than phone claims for unemployment compensation. Last month, commissioners decided that employers could begin filing protests to claims by telephone. ‘ Benefits paid out of that can’t be charged to a specific employer’s tax account end up being shared by all Texas employers even if they were never involved with the claimant. To top it off, employers can’t even protest claims if they didn’t pay wages during the claimant’s base period. Texas employers don’t want to deny claims to people who need and deserve their unemployment benefits. But 40 percent of respondents to a 1999 TABCC survey said they paid unemployment insurance benefits to former employees who weren’t entitled to the help. Among them were employees fired for stealing and for testing positive for drugs and one former employee who collected unemployment benefits while in prison. A good economy, tort reforms and an excellent business climate spurred by Gov. George W. Bush and strong legislative leadership have made Texas one of the best states in the nation in which to do business. But Texas can do better. Reform of a unemployment insurance system that contains little or no monitoring of job searches, rewards those who don’t find work, and is spiraling out of control is a growing business concern. Unemployment benefits were meant to help bridge the gap between losing one job and finding another. Instead, living off the unemployment insurance fund has become a way of life for some people. Why should Texas businesses spend money to support a program badly in need of reform, when that money could be better used to expand the Texas economy’

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