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Out of Work and Challenged on Benefits, Too

In Record Numbers, Employers Move to Block Unemployment Payouts

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009; Page A01

It's hard enough to lose a job. But for a growing proportion of U.S. workers, the troubles really set in when they apply for unemployment benefits.

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More than a quarter of people applying for such claims have their rights to the benefit challenged as employers increasingly act to block payouts to former workers.

The proportion of claims disputed by former employers and state agencies has reached record levels in recent years, according to the Labor Department numbers tallied by the Urban Institute.

Under state and federal laws, employees who are fired for misbehavior or quit voluntarily are ineligible for unemployment compensation. When jobless claims are blocked, employers save money because their unemployment insurance rates are based on the amount of the benefits their workers collect.

As unemployment rolls swell in the recession, many workers seem surprised to find their benefits challenged, their former bosses providing testimony against them. On one recent morning in what amounts to one of Maryland's unemployment courts, employees and employers squared off at conference tables to rehash reports of bad customer service, anger management and absenteeism.

"I couldn't believe it," said Kenneth M. Brown, who lost his job as a hotel electrician in October.

He began collecting benefits of $380 a week but then discovered that his former employer, the owners of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, were appealing to block his unemployment benefits. The hotel alleged that he had been fired for being deceptive with a supervisor.

"A big corporation like that. . . . It was hard enough to be terminated," he said. "But for them to try to take away the unemployment benefits -- I just thought that was heartless."

After a Post reporter turned up at the hearing, the hotel's representative withdrew the appeal and declined to comment. A hotel spokesperson later said the company does not comment on legal matters. Brown will continue to collect benefits, which he, his wife and three young children rely on to make monthly mortgage payments on their Upper Marlboro home.

Unemployment compensation programs are administered by the states and funded by payroll taxes that employers pay. In 2007, employers put up about $31.5 billion in such taxes, and those taxes typically rise during and after recessions, as states seek to replenish the funds.

With each successful claim raising a company's costs, many firms resist letting employees collect the benefit if they consider it undeserved.

"In some of these cases, employers feel like there's some matter of principle involved," said Coleman Walsh, chief administrative law judge in Virginia, who has handled many such disputes. But, he said, "nowadays it appears their motivation has more to do with the impact on their unemployment insurance tax rate. Employers by and large are more aware of unemployment as a cost of business."


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