A House panel voted Wednesday to require those seeking unemployment benefits to prove that they were fired and did not just quit.

The 6-3 vote by the Commerce Committee came after restaurant owners and some business groups complained that workers were abandoning their jobs and then trying to collect payments. The issue is significant because the tax that employers pay into the unemployment insurance fund is based on how often workers are laid off and eligible to get weekly benefits.

Rep. Debbie McCune Davis said HB 2147 could put employees who have legitimate claims into a situation where they are denied payments. She said shifting the burden of proof is not fair.

But Rep. Tom Forese, R-Chandler, was unapologetic for that change.

"I'm just shocked on how anti-business our country has become,'' he said.

"In the United States and Arizona, it's no longer what it used to be,'' Forese continued. "We need to change the tide and start to fight for the employer.''

Under current rules, if there is a disagreement between the employer and the employee about the reason for the worker leaving, it is up to the employer to prove that the person left without good reason and is therefore ineligible for benefits, according to Tasya Peterson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Security.

This measure would override that rule, saying if the employer provides documentation that a worker either resigned voluntarily or abandoned the job, then the burden of proving otherwise shifts to the worker.

But it also says that "documentation'' can include simply the employer's own verbal or written statements detailing the company's position on why the worker left. And it even permits as evidence an employer's attestation that the employee left on his or her own -- all of which then requires the worker to provide proof to the contrary.

McCune Davis said one flaw is that it is the employer who controls all the documents. She said that could leave the worker, who contends he or she did not voluntarily resign, with nothing to counter.

But Eric Emmert, a lobbyist for the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance, said that does not necessarily mean the worker will be denied benefits.

"It is up to the Department (of Economic Security) to make the judgment call,'' he said. Emmert said the change simply requires those seeking payments to provide some proof rather than "relying on the business on the back end to fight it.''

The measure now goes to the full House. But even an anticipated affirmative vote there and concurrence of the Senate and governor might not resolve the issue.

McCune Davis said she believes that the U.S. Department of Labor, which helps the state pay for administering unemployment claims, may object to changing the burden of proof from employers to employees.

Peterson said DES staff already has submitted the proposal to federal officials who have determined that the measure in its current form, "is not in conformity with federal unemployment insurance law.'' She said it is her understanding that changes will be made to the measure on the House floor.

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