A House panel voted narrowly Thursday to require drug testing of those who want jobless benefits.
But a threat of loss of federal funding leaves it unclear exactly how broad that testing would be.
Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said the measure is simply a recognition that those who are getting unemployment insurance are required to be ready to take a job. He said someone who is taking illegal drugs or medications that are not prescribed do not fit that definition and should not be entitled to the weekly payments.
SB 1495 would mandate testing for anyone at the time of application. Anyone who fails would be ineligible but could reapply in 30 days.
The legislation also directs the Department of Economic Security to conduct random testing of those already getting benefits. One positive test forfeits the benefits for that month and mandates monthly testing once payments are restored; a second positive means no funds for six months.
“If you are so fortunate to live in a nation to get an unemployment check ... when you’re down on your luck, the very least you ought to be able to do is prove that you’re of sound mind and body to earn — earn — that benefit,” Smith said.
But Smith’s proposal, which already was approved by the Senate, is running into a problem: the federal government.
In a letter last month to state officials, Gay Gilbert, administrator of the Office of Unemployment Insurance at the Department of Labor, said Congress always intended jobless benefits to be a “matter of right” to those who lost the jobs through no fault of their own.
More to the point, Gilbert said Congress has only recently allowed states to perform drug testing of applicants -- but only “in very limited circumstances.” That generally involves only those who were fired from their previous job for failing a drug test, or if the only suitable work available for the applicant is in a field where drug testing is required, like interstate transportation.
What gives the government the power to make the rules is companies get a reduction of their federal unemployment tax obligations based on what they pay into the state’s own jobless fund. But if a state’s program is out of compliance, that credit goes away and their federal bill goes up.
“Frankly, I think it’s a bluff,” Smith told colleagues of the risk.
But others were not so sure.
Nancy McLain, R-Bullhead City, noted her janitorial firm operates in both Arizona and California. That latter state, she said, ran afoul of the Department of Labor by not repaying money it borrowed from the federal government to make unemployment payments when its own fund ran dry.
The result, she said, has been a surcharge on her unemployment insurance premiums for her California workers.
“I don’t believe the federal government is going to have any reluctance at all to step in and say, ‘Employer, you will make up the difference,’ ‘’ she said.
Smith argued that having the state test applicants will save money for Arizona’s unemployment. He said some people show up for job interviews under the influence and are just as happy to fail the pre-employment drug test because they’d rather stay home and collect benefits.