At their own political peril, Tennessee Republicans are getting behind a business lobby campaign to make it harder for workers to collect unemployment benefits.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey already has drawn heavy criticism in the liberal blogosphere and elsewhere for painting many jobless people as slackers on the dole.
“When does it become a benefit and when does it become a lifestyle?” Ramsey, R-Blountville, asked about the unemployment compensation system. “There are jobs out there. ... It may not be the job you want, but there are jobs out there.”
Since Ramsey made those remarks at a business luncheon in Kingsport, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, has called for drug-testing workers as a condition for unemployment benefits.
“If people are doing drugs, I don’t think they should receive the benefits,” Campfield told The City Paper. “There are limited dollars. Our employers are stretched to the bone already paying their unemployment premiums. We’re losing businesses left and right. If we’re going to give out benefits, we should give them to people who are not sitting home getting stoned all day but who are actually out trying to find work.”
At the opening meeting of the state House Republican task force on jobs and economic growth, the chairman publicly complained about the 20-week federal extension of unemployment benefits. It was only at the 11th hour of this year’s session that Republican lawmakers grudgingly went along with that.
“We’re making it too easy,” Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, said.
Democrats may be downtrodden in Tennessee, but they still know a golden opportunity when they see one. With the unemployment rate running at nearly 10 percent in Tennessee, Republicans risk looking like the cold-hearted skinflints of their critics’ caricature. Democrats calculate many voters will recoil from politicians who bash the jobless.
Weekly unemployment benefits in Tennessee average $234, and 120,000 people now are receiving aid in this state.
State Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester accused Ramsey of “demonizing Tennesseans looking for work” after failing to enact any meaningful legislation to create jobs in the last session.
“Welcome to reality, Lt. Gov. Ramsey, Tennessee doesn’t have a shortage of work ethic — Tennessee has a shortage of work,” Forrester said.
He cited a string of examples of workers swamping companies with job applications. Five thousand people waited in line in hopes of landing one of 1,600 jobs at Nissan in Smyrna, for instance, and Wacker Chemie in Bradley County received 10,000 applications for 130 hires.
Forrester called Campfield’s drug-testing proposal “another way to hand over more of our hard-earned tax dollars to big drug-testing corporations.”
“With our state economy still struggling, we should be investing in our future by retraining our workforce and fixing our bridges and schools,” he said. “Instead Senator Campfield has come up with another extreme stunt in a long line of ideas that do nothing to put Tennesseans back to work.”
Ramsey seems to have recognized a political misstep. While not backing away from his main point, the Senate speaker lately has toned down his criticism of the jobless and tried to appear cognizant of the financial difficulties some workers and families face.
“I know it’s tough times,” he said. “I’m not downplaying that at all. But I also know that in some cases there are jobs available if people would be willing to do it. Since I’ve made those comments, I’ve been inundated by employers who say this is exactly what is happening. One in Columbia, Tenn., called me last week and said, if you hire somebody, you usually have to hire somebody who’s already got a job. It’s hard to hire somebody off unemployment. This isn’t anecdotal. This can be backed up.”
Jim Brown, director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Tennessee, said his members are demanding that the state scale back the unemployment benefit program.
In 2009, the legislature raised taxes on businesses to ensure the solvency of the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund. The tax increase averaged $108 annually for each employee. Brown said that levy has hurt businesses and the economy.
The NFIB is considering asking the legislature to decrease the number of weeks that benefits may be given. Like most states, Tennessee provides 26 weeks of benefits, the maximum allowed under federal law. But many states are cutting back. Arkansas now gives only 25 weeks, for instance, and it’s only 20 weeks in Missouri and South Carolina.
Brown said the NFIB might favor a sliding scale of weeks tied to the unemployment rate — the lower the rate, the fewer weeks of benefits allowed. In Florida, Brown pointed out, the maximum benefit is 23 weeks and that drops to 12 weeks when the unemployment rate is 5 percent or lower.
In addition, the NFIB will propose tightening the statutory definition of employee misconduct so more workers could be denied benefits, Brown said. And he said the NFIB hopes the legislature will change the law to force workers to document that they are looking for jobs while receiving benefits.
Under state law, workers must certify weekly they are looking for work. But they don’t have to provide contact information for specific employers. Brown said the NFIB is thinking about supporting a requirement like the one in Florida’s new law. It forces workers to certify online that they are searching for a job, specifically naming the employers to whom they’ve applied, or to visit a one-stop career center once a week.
Gov. Bill Haslam has said he’s thinking about whether to support any changes in the law. Even if he decides to sit out this issue, he likely would acquiesce to the legislature should Republicans decide to go forward. Still, even Brown acknowledges the politics are iffy.
“The politics of this is obviously very important,” Brown said, adding that Republicans can sell reducing unemployment benefits as a way to put more people to work. “You’re actually helping people and not hurting them. It’s going to take some educating. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”