COLUMBIA — The director of South Carolina’s unemployment agency said Wednesday that fired employees are losing jobless benefits as called for under a new state law, though he acknowledged mistakes were made during the law’s first week of implementation.
Abraham Turner, the agency head, told senators the number of people wrongly awarded benefits will continue to decline. The law signed in June requires automatic denial of benefits for workers fired for misconduct.
“I can assure you that’s going to get better and better,” he told Sen. Kevin Bryant after a nearly five-hour subcommittee hearing.
Turner said employers can help their case by quickly getting more detailed information to the agency.
Bryant, R-Anderson, called a meeting of his Labor Commerce and Industry subcommittee to question why 66 fired workers were awarded the maximum 20 weeks of benefits in the law’s first week. Bryant pulled those cases among 518 files sent to him for the week of July 9-13.
“I am very confident that the department has successfully implemented all aspects” of the law, Turner said in his opening statement.
The actual number of fired workers who received full benefits during that period is lower, although it’s not known by how much.
In several examples legislators began to discuss, agency officials said supervisors reversed the initial ruling to grant benefits. That included a worker fired for tire slashing, one fired for calling a female supervisor a five-letter word in social media, and a worker fired after being arrested.
Assistant director Laura Robinson said that in the last example, the decision to provide full benefits was reversed after the employer provided the agency more information. On average, employers in one in five cases provide no response, and without that, the agency must find for the worker, she said.
If a ruling providing benefits is reversed, to find against the worker, that person must pay back the benefits awarded. And if an appeal favors an employee initially denied benefits, that person will get paid retroactively, she said.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, questioned why some cases were ever ruled in the employee’s favor.
Turner and Robinson said the agency is still battling a previous culture. Before legislators restructured the agency several years ago, Robinson said, the thought was that businesses had to prove their case “to a degree that almost rose to the level of a court case.”
Turner detailed the training of employees under his tenure that started last year, noting many had received no formal training.
“Daily we’re working with employees to make them understand this is a new DEW. We don’t do things like we used to,” Robinson said. “Mistakes are going to happen, but I feel good about their willingness to learn new ways. People are human. If people make a mistake and we haven’t corrected it, we will.”
While the law calls for full disqualification for workers fired for misconduct, it allows for partial disqualification, between five and 19 weeks, for workers fired for cause. The law specifically says misconduct is “willful and wanton disregard of an employer’s interests” or substantial negligence, but it provides no definition for firing for cause.
Exemptions by law that allow for full benefits include inability to do the job, incapacity and inefficiency. Massey said the last term is particularly vague.
Of the 518 claims, Turner said, 59 percent were fully disqualified after adjudicators determined they were fired for misconduct; 11 percent were partially disqualified; 4 percent were indefinitely disqualified; and the remaining 26 percent received full benefits.
Bryant wanted to discuss each case, but agency officials said that would violate privacy issues and open the state to lawsuits.
The privacy issues came up Tuesday, after Bryant tweeted that a worker fired for a “booty call” at work received full benefits. Turner said Wednesday no case involved such an infraction. Bryant said emphatically one did.