NIEZGODSKI: Hoosiers would be nuts to game this paltry system

December 15, 2012

David NiezgodskiQUESTION: The Indiana Chamber of Commerce plans to ask the General Assembly to tighten some unemployment insurance laws, saying too many jobless people falsify documents or apply for positions and then refuse resulting job offers. Is abuse a problem, and should the Legislature act?

Consider for a moment what it’s like to be on unemployment in Indiana.

You lost your job, perhaps because your plant shut down for good or to move somewhere else.

In our state, the maximum unemployment benefit you can get is $390 a week. You can collect unemployment benefits for up to 79 weeks.

What does that $390 a week pay for? And remember, that’s the most you can get, which means most people get less.

It helps pay your rent or your mortgage. It buys the family groceries. It puts gas in the car so you can go to job interviews. If anyone in the family gets sick, it helps pay for the visit to the doctor.

These are the benefits that are so lush, so extravagant that a person would look them over and say, “Boy, who needs to have a full-time job when this gravy train is rolling in?”

Yet, in the views of some special interests, these are exactly the kinds of people we should be worried about, the kinds that look to game the system to their advantage … even though the most recent “reforms” passed by the Republican legislative majorities in 2011 cut those benefits an average of 25 percent.

I prefer to take a different view of things.

I suspect there are as many people who look upon unemployment benefits as a reason not to find work as there are business owners who demand taxpayer-funded incentives to locate in a community and create jobs, only to turn around and go somewhere else when the support runs out and the jobs never appear.

Who is causing the greater harm to the people of Indiana?

If there is fraud, waste and abuse, it can be found anywhere, from those who finance a program to those who administer it to those who benefit from it.

But it seems we’re ignoring an obvious solution to reducing the burdens on an overworked system.

Rather than assigning blame, we should all agree that the best answer is to get these unemployed Hoosiers back to work.

I would begin by helping Indiana’s small businesses, which everyone agrees are the engine that drives our state’s economy. Since they were the sector of our economy that ended up paying a greater share of the premium increases imposed in the 2011 “reforms,” it’s common sense to start there.

In the 2013 General Assembly, I intend to offer legislation that would enable businesses with fewer than 50 employees to apply for low-interest loans that would enable them to stay afloat during tough times.

I also would argue that we need a renewed commitment toward worker training and retraining that targets industries where jobs will be available. Perhaps now is a good time for the state’s Department of Workforce Development to live up to its title, rather than simply serving as a watchdog for unemployment insurance.

When state lawmakers met for Organization Day in November, House Speaker Brian Bosma took special pains to mention that the super-majority his party holds in both chambers should not mean the end of bipartisanship in the legislative process. He extended a willingness to work together to benefit the people of Indiana.

He should be taken at his word. We should spend less time blaming others, and more time finding answers that end the problems facing Indiana’s unemployed.

Good-paying jobs and more of them can cure a lot of what ails our unemployment system.•

• Niezgodski, a Democrat from South Bend, represents Indiana House District 7. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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