S.C. bill would require jobless to volunteer

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COLUMBIA — If unemployed workers in South Carolina can’t find a job in six months, they would have to volunteer 16 hours weekly to continue getting benefits from the state under a bill up for debate today by a Senate panel.

Its sponsor, Sen. Paul Campbell, said it’s easier for people to get a job if they have a job of some sort, and his intent is to match people’s skills with work that needs done in city or county governments and schools, from electrical work to assisting in classrooms.

“I just think if someone’s busy working, they’ll be more industrious and more likely to get a job,” said Campbell, R-Goose Creek. “Depending on the skill they’ve got, I think we can put that skill to work. I’m not talking about collecting garbage on the side of the highway.”

His bill is among several involving unemployment benefits set for discussion in a Senate subcommittee meetingtoday, the start of the 2012 legislative session. Another would require laid-off workers to pass a drug test to qualify for benefits, and require the unemployed to pay for the test.

A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley said she generally supports the measures.

“Anything that increases accountability over unemployment benefits, enhances workforce training and incentivizes people to get back to work, the governor will support,” Rob Godfrey said.

The senior attorney of the National Employment Law Project said both the drug testing and community service bills conflict with federal law. They also feed negative stereotypes of the unemployed, George Wentworth said.

“The unemployed are just a slice of America. They’re you and I without a job,” he said. “To suggest that the unemployed are lazy drug abusers who are just sitting around feeds a false, ugly stereotype. Most of these workers are unemployed because we have a horrible labor market.”

South Carolina’s unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent and has remained above the national average for years. The average unemployment benefit payment in South Carolina is $235 weekly, which ranks 45th nationwide. The maximum a laid-off worker can receive is $326 weekly.

Last year, Florida lawmakers considered a bill requiring community service for unemployment benefits, but it died after the Department of Labor informed lawmakers it would conflict with federal law, Wentworth said.

Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, said the details of his drug testing bill must be worked out, and he acknowledged he’s unsure what the federal agency would allow, but he wanted to jumpstart the process.

“Those working to keep their jobs are susceptible to a possible drug test — those working and paying taxes — so those drawing benefits from those taxes should be held accountable also. That’s the argument,” Bryant said. “Hopefully, folks would make the better decision to not use drugs, and we can get them back to work.”

The bills will be in his subcommittee.

The idea of drug testing the unemployed has come up before.

Last year, Haley touted it in meetings across the state, but an example she gave for needing the tests was erroneous. In September, Haley acknowledged she couldn’t back a statistic she said she’d repeated numerous times: that half the workers applying for jobs at the Savannah River Site near Aiken failed drug tests. The real number? Less than 1 percent.

The U.S. House version of a bill renewing payroll tax cuts and an extension to jobless benefits would have allowed states to test applicants for illegal drugs. But that provision didn’t make it to the final version passed by Congress last month.

Beyond not allowing drug testing for benefits, federal law doesn’t allow states to put the cost of administering benefits on the worker, meaning workers couldn’t be required to pay for their own test, Wentworth said.

Bryant said he believes that even if the state had to pay, it would be worth it.

“I think it’s worth the cost out of principle. The money spent would be a good prevention to encourage people to not use illegal drugs,” he said.

But Wentworth believes the expense would be a bad investment. Tests cost between $25 and $75 each. Texas lawmakers considered a similar idea but abandoned it after an estimate put the cost at $30 million, he said.

Florida enacted a law requiring people applying for welfare to pass drug tests, before a federal judge halted implementation on constitutional grounds. While it was in place, 2.5 percent of applicants tested positive, Wentworth said.

In 2010, less than 2 percent of pre-employment tests nationally were positive for drugs, according to an annual report from Quest Diagnostics, a national drug testing company.

“It’s definitely a gross overreaction to subject everybody unemployed to tests, when it’s really only a tiny fraction,” Wentworth said.


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