Missouri lawmakers this year again are being asked to pass a law changing the state's definitions of "misconduct" and "good cause" as applied to people's ability to collect unemployment insurance.
"We need it because the referees and the appeals courts have eroded the current definition," Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, told the Senate's Small Business, Insurance and Industry Committee Tuesday, "and people are simply getting unemployment benefits who don't deserve it."
All employers pay into the state's unemployment fund, and benefit payments are supposed to be made to people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.
But, Kraus and others noted, people have won orders for unemployment benefits even though they were fired for falling asleep at work or urinating off the roof of a building.
Missouri Retailers Assn. President David Overfelt told the committee: "Theft is the number one problem we find at retail - we have cameras throughout our stores.
"We have (pictures of employees stealing) on camera - and they still qualify for unemployment."
And former state Sen. Larry Rohrbach, R-California, representing Missouri nursing homes associated in the group "Leading Age-Missouri," told the Senate panel: "Oftentimes, we have to let people go - because they have to pass background checks, if they commit certain types of crimes, (or) if they're abusive in any way. ...
"Oftentimes, (the homes) tell us they end up paying unemployment, even though they're required to let people go."
In recent years, the unemployment fund has paid out more in benefits than employers have contributed, and the fund had to borrow money from the federal government so benefits would continue.
"(The fund is) broke to the tune, today, of around $300 million," said Tracy King, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry's vice president of Government Affairs.
Paying back the federal loan means employers must pay extra - this year, $43 per employee.
King said the loan repayments cost all Missouri employers an extra $45 million in 2012 and $45 million last year.
"If we do nothing, that total will rise by 2015, to be over $500 million," she said.
"This is a significant cost to the employer community and, because of that, they're not going to hire people, they're not going to make capital investments - and Missouri's economy is not going to move forward."
Kraus' bill has the same language lawmakers approved last year, but that Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed.
The Senate voted to override Nixon's veto but, Kraus said, the House "came up two votes short."
In his veto letter last July, Nixon objected to last year's bill because it "would expand the definition of misconduct to include activities occurring outside the workplace and outside work hours (and) goes too far when it denies unemployment benefits in these circumstances."
The governor offered several examples of how employees could lose benefits under last year's law.
King told senators Tuesday: "The veto letter was a lot of hypotheticals that could happen if this law passed. I can tell you, our employers deal with real situations, real facts and real cases. ... We can't legislate hypotheticals."
Mike Kelly, representing the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said MATA has given Kraus some alternate language - but opposes the bill in its current form.
"What we have to remember is, this is the safety net for our citizens," Kelly explained. "No one is saying that this bill - or any other bill - is going to change the fact than an employer can terminate a bad employee.
"The question is, when do we provide that safety net."
While there likely have been some abuses of the system, he said, "You're taking a broad brush that's going to take people who should be entitled to benefits, and keep them from getting them."
In 2012, he said, "21,000 people were denied unemployment benefits because of misconduct," with only a few winning appeals to get benefits they originally lost.
Missouri National Education Assn. lobbyist Otto Fajen said his group also proposed some different wording, to "respect" the categories Kraus' bill addresses while making sure a firing is for "significant misconduct."