For a certain group of New Jerseyans, losing their jobs can mean being denied unemployment benefits indefinitely, according to state Sen. Barbara Buono.
The Middlesex County Democrat recently claimed that Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, created that new category of unemployed persons when he reformed the state’s unemployment insurance law in 2010.
"A few years ago, the governor -- in so-called reform of the unemployment law -- created...this new category where you could get laid off and just be totally denied unemployment benefits forever," Buono said in an Oct. 1 interview on NJToday.
Buono’s statement is essentially correct. Based on Christie’s recommendations, state officials in 2010 created a category where individuals fired for "severe misconduct" could be barred from receiving unemployment benefits for as long as they remain unemployed.
But the Democrat-led state Legislature bears responsibility for signing off on Christie’s proposed changes. Also, if someone gets another job after being fired for severe misconduct, it’s possible for the wages from that first job to ultimately count toward unemployment benefits.
Buono used the phrase "laid off," but state regulations typically refer to such individuals as being "discharged" or "fired."
First, let’s explain what severe misconduct means.
The state originally had two categories of misconduct cases: misconduct and gross misconduct. Gross misconduct related to behavior that was criminal in nature. Misconduct applied to everything else.
State officials created a third category of severe misconduct to recognize behavior that was worse than simple misconduct, but still fell short of being gross misconduct. Examples of severe misconduct include the use of drugs or alcohol on the job and the destruction or theft of company property.
Christie recommended adding that category when he conditionally vetoed a bill passed by the Legislature to change the unemployment insurance tax rates paid by employers. Buono voted against accepting the governor’s proposed changes, but most other legislators voted in favor of them and Christie signed the bill into law in July 2010.
"It was a bi-partisan effort to make it a fairer system," Harold Wirths, commissioner of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said in a statement.
Christina Zuk, Buono’s chief of staff, maintained that Christie created the category, pointing out that it didn’t exist until he added it to the bill through his conditional veto.
From July 2010 to August 2012, 15,961 unemployment benefit claims were denied for severe misconduct, according to labor department data.
However, there’s still a chance a person fired for severe misconduct could ultimately receive unemployment benefits based in part on wages from that job.
Here’s how it works:
Employment benefits are based on wages earned during a 52-week period called a "base year." Let’s say that after being fired for severe misconduct, that person gets another job, meets certain employment criteria and then loses that job for reasons not related to misconduct.
If both jobs occurred within the same base year, then the person could cite both sets of wages to calculate his unemployment benefits, according to department spokesman Brian Murray.
But Zuk argued the new category still means individuals won’t receive benefits after they first become unemployed due to "severe misconduct."
"Therefore an individual who finds him or herself unemployed due to ‘severe misconduct’ will have no means of sustaining themselves until they find another job," Zuk said in an e-mail. "The DOL spokesperson's statement only becomes relevant if the unemployed individual finds a new job and re-qualifies for benefits."
In a TV interview, Buono claimed Christie created "this new category where you could get laid off and just be totally denied unemployment benefits forever."
The senator’s claim isn’t far off. Based on Christie’s recommendations, state officials created a "severe misconduct" category in which individuals could be denied unemployment benefits for as long as they remain unemployed.
But the Legislature agreed to create that category as well. Also, there is a scenario in which a person fired for severe misconduct could later receive unemployment benefits based in part on wages from that job.
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