- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to legislation that could make it harder for people to collect unemployment benefits after being fired for alleged misconduct such as repeated absences.

The measure is a revised version of a bill vetoed last year by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who raised concerns that it could conflict with federal employment laws. Most Democrats continued to oppose this year’s bill, though the Republican sponsor said it had been tweaked in an attempt to address concerns.

Nixon has not commented about whether he will sign or veto this year’s version.

Republican lawmakers and business groups contend that court rulings gradually have eroded Missouri’s current law allowing unemployment benefits to be denied to workers dismissed for misconduct. The bill would expand the definition of misconduct, thus narrowing the instances in which people could collect jobless benefits.

“Right now, we’ve got a situation where people are getting unemployment benefits that don’t deserve it,” said Republican Sen. Will Kraus, of Lee’s Summit, who cited an example of a fired employee who got benefits after being caught stealing on camera.

He added: “Unemployment benefits were designed for people that were let go through no fault of their own.”

Democrats said the legislation would effectively shift the burden from employers to workers when misconduct allegations are raised.

This is a “very bad bill that leaves employees completely and utterly at the mercy of their employers,” said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart.

The Republican-led House passed the bill 107-45 on a largely partisan vote. The GOP-led Senate approved it by a 22-9 party-line vote in March. The measure now goes to Nixon.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry praised lawmakers for passing what it described as a “reform bill.” It said that by limiting new claims for unemployment benefits, the state could more quickly pay back a debt owed to the federal government for financing past jobless benefits.

“Currently, Missouri’s unemployment benefits laws are far too inclusive, effectively rewarding some employees who willfully break workplace rules,” the chamber said in a news release.

Missouri law defines employee misconduct as “wanton or willful disregard of the employer’s interest,” a deliberate violation of rules or a disregard of behavior standards.

Last year’s vetoed bill would have redefined misconduct to include actions “reasonably related to the job environment.”

Nixon said that went too far and could have conflicted with federal law, thus putting Missouri businesses in jeopardy of having to pay to hundreds of millions of dollars more annually in federal unemployment insurance taxes. The governor said that what employees do on their own time shouldn’t be used as a basis for denying them unemployment benefits, except in narrow circumstances covered under existing law.

This year’s legislation says misconduct includes an act “that is connected with work” - a phrase also included in federal law.

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