U.S. debates changes to unemployment insurance

Law proposes drug testing and proof of credential training

A bill has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives that alters the terms of federally funded unemployment assistance and includes new provisions for workers without a high school diploma.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act will extend a number of provisions scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The bill — which still needs approval by the House and Senate — proposes to reduce the period of time jobless workers can receive federal unemployment benefits to a maximum of 59 weeks in 2012. Current law provides federal benefits for up to 99 weeks, depending on the pervasiveness of unemployment in the state.

"This bill is about strengthening our economy and getting Americans back to work through common sense reforms," said Congressman Dave Camp, who introduced the bill. "This package includes many of the president's own ideas. With its passage, Americans can be confident that these programs and provisions will be available next year, that they will not result in decades of debt and that they will be paid for with fiscally responsible reforms, not job-killing tax hikes."

The bill will also require those individuals claiming unemployment insurance without a high school diploma or GED to demonstrate they are enrolled in a program leading to a credential. This is a demonstration of how the bill puts ideology before the broader needs of the public, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

Reducing workers benefits does not solve the long-term unemployment crisis,” said Neil Ridley, a CLASP senior policy analyst. “But establishing a blanket policy that denies unemployment insurance benefits to low-skill workers, who have lost their jobs and would otherwise be eligible, just because they don’t have a high school diploma and without ensuring they have access to education opportunities is punitive and misguided.”

Republicans say, though, these measures will prompt unemployed workers to accept jobs when they're available.

"These bills that we passed, I believe, are going to encourage people to get back to work but not punish those who cannot actually find work and are unable to get a job," Sen. Bruce Caswell, a Republican from Hillsdale, told Detroit News.

The bill also allows states to require drug testing as a condition of receiving unemployment insurance, but CLASP senior policy analyst Elizabeth Lower-Basch says drug testing unfairly places the blame.

“It’s an insult to unemployed workers — and a massive waste of taxpayer money — to test millions of people for drug use with no reason other than stereotype to believe they are using drugs,” said Lower-Basch.

President Barack Obama has sworn to veto the bill.

Current unemployment insurance provisions expire Dec. 31, 2011.

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