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Arizona Legislature overhauls unemployment claims

PHOENIX -- A bill that would make it more difficult for recently unemployed people in Arizona to collect unemployment benefits is likely to land on Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's desk.

The state House approved legislation Tuesday that would require unemployed workers to present documents showing they were fired before they can receive benefits. Under current law, the burden is on employers to fight fraudulent claims.

The 34-24 vote came a week after the Senate passed the proposal along party lines. Republicans control the Senate and House.

The proposed change follows complaints from business leaders about workers who walk off jobs and then file for benefits.

Democrats slammed Republicans for making it harder for struggling families to seek assistance while also doing little this to promote job creation. They said it would be nearly impossible for workers to prove they were let go because employers often don't provide documentation informing workers of their dismissal.

``They are already going through a hard enough time as it is,'' said Democratic Rep. Jonathan Larkin.

Minority Leader Chad Campbell said workers might not be able to prove they were fired if the company they worked for shut its doors. He blasted Republicans for ``creating more problems for the people who don't need more problems in their lives''

``Those are the people we should be helping,'' he said. ``We should be down here trying to create jobs.''

Republicans countered that the bill would create jobs because it would protect businesses from devoting hours to fighting fraudulent claims instead of filling open positions.

``They are begging for workers,'' said Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro. ``They need people employed, but sometimes, unfortunately, not everybody, but there are people who chose to be on unemployment rather than take some of those jobs.''

Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth said too often state unemployment assistance workers err on the side of jobless workers over businesses ``because they have deep pockets and the person who quit has no responsibility.''

``You have the responsibility to show that and not the business,'' Farnsworth said.

The U.S. Department of Labor initially raised concerns about the legality of the bill. Under federal law, applicants who have lost a job through no fault of their own and are able to work are eligible to receive benefits. The burden of proof is not on the employee.

``It is the state's responsibility to make reasonable efforts to obtain the information necessary to determine whether an individual is eligible,'' federal officials wrote to lawmakers in early March.

In the Senate, lawmakers amended the bill to address those federal concerns. The legislation now requires the state to make a final determination based on all submitted evidence.

Under the measure, employers would be allowed to claim that the employee submitted a resignation orally to prove the worker voluntarily left the job. Employers also could challenge claims if they say the worker skipped work.

Thousands of people could be impacted by the proposed change. The number of people claiming benefits in Arizona was about 75,000 in January, according to the state Department of Economic Security.

Arizona is already tougher than many other states when it comes to unemployment claims. The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Arizona is $240. The national average has been $300 since 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. sequester

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Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva

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