COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s unemployment agency may pay $150 million less in benefits this year by clamping down on who qualifies, officials said Tuesday.
Employers’ tax rates for unemployment insurance should go down for 2013, not up as suggested by a senator highly critical of the agency, said Laura Robinson, assistant director of the Department of Employment and Workforce.
The agency is on track to pay as little as $300 million in benefits this year to jobless workers, compared to roughly $450 million last year, according to the agency.
The drop comes despite the state’s stubbornly high jobless rate, which was 9.6 percent in July. The rate dipped to a four-year-low of 8.8 percent in April before rising again for three consecutive months.
Robinson attributed the drop in payments to internal policy changes and a new law, implemented in July, requiring the agency to deny all benefits to workers fired for misconduct. The policy implemented in April limits workers fired for other, non-deliberative reasons to a maximum of four weeks of payments.
Last year, fired workers received $50 million in benefits. That compares to $12.3 million for the first half of 2012. The third quarter’s tally should be less than $4 million, Robinson said, noting just $1 million went to fired workers in August.
Robinson was making her second appearance in two months before a Senate Labor Commerce and Industry subcommittee.
Its chairman, Sen. Kevin Bryant, continues to accuse the agency of not abiding by the law and believes rates will go up. His accusations are based on decisions made in the first week of the law’s implementation. He has no information from subsequent weeks.
“If taxes do go down, I’d love to come before this committee and say, `I was wrong,“’ said Bryant, R-Anderson, who says he’s frustrated by a lack of response from DEW. “Twelve million is much better than 50. It’s headed in the right direction.”
Last month, Bryant questioned 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 the agency sent him for July 9-13. The actual number of fired workers who received full benefits during that period is lower, although it’s not known by how much.
DEW Director Abraham Turner acknowledged last month that mistakes were made during that first week but were being corrected. Robinson said Tuesday she’s happy with the results of worker training.
Bryant had intended to go through his list of contested cases Tuesday.
But a warning from the Department of Labor shut that down. In a letter Monday to DEW, the federal agency’s unemployment insurance division raised concerns about legislators influencing the outcome of cases still going through the appeals process. Such perceived influence could expose the state to lawsuits, Bryant said in explaining the letter.
Once cases are closed, the panel should be able to review them, according to a Senate attorney.
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he expects to do so.
“There’s no way for us to judge how the department is applying the law if we can’t look at closed cases,” he said. “I don’t want to make determinations. Looking at closed cases seems to be the only way we could know the law is being implemented as intended.”