This week a state senate panel in South Carolina approved a bill that would force unemployed workers to take drug tests in order to qualify for unemployment insurance and force them, after collecting benefits for 20 weeks, to do 16 hours of volunteer work per week while they hunt for jobs.
The legislation is now before the full Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee where it could be approved as early as late today.
The panel approved the measure despite warnings that it would probably be challenged by federal labor officials as too harsh on many of South Carolina's 214,000 unemployed people.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, a Republican from Anderson, S.C. brushed off those who fear the changes will be nixed by the federal government, "It's time to start pushing back," he said. "I can't base how I vote on a bill on what some activist, liberal judge is going to do."
South Carolina legislators had already approved last year a cut in the number of benefits from 26 to 20 weeks.
The state now plans also to reduce the number of weeks someone can receive unemployment benefits if they were let go for absenteeism, poor attitude, violating policy or poor work quality. The change means they would miss out on at least 16 weeks of payments, up from 10, leaving the maximum state benefit at a month.
Another policy change would require people drawing unemployment benefits to accept job offers that pay incrementally less than their previous wages.
The change means those drawing unemployment must accept job offers that pay 90 percent of their previous wages after four weeks. The percentage would drop every four weeks. After 16 unemployment payments, they'd have to accept 70 percent of their previous income. Once federal extensions kick in at 20 weeks, they'd have to accept minimum wage labor.
"Extremist South Carolina politicians aren't the only ones pushing these attacks on working families," according to Andy Richards, field communications staffer for the AFL-CIO. "There are bills working there way through the process in 12 states that would require drug testing for jobless workers."
""This is part of a larger effort to break down public support for extending unemployment insurance benefits and shifting blame for joblessness to the jobless like lawmakers did with welfare in the 1990's," said Mark Schmitt, a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.
In the state of Florida, a similar bill that required welfare recipients to be drug tested was ruled unconstitutional. Despite that set back for Republicans, lawmakers in 36 other states continue to examine that idea.
North Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, has been caught spinning outright lies in her effort to push for drug testing of the unemployed.
Haley, in a recent speech at the Lexington Rotary Club, said, "I so want drug testing. I so want it." She told her audience that many applicants failed a group test at Savannah River site, a nuclear reservation along the Savannah river.
"Down on River Site, they were hiring a few hundred people, and when we sat down and talked to them, they said of everybody they interviewed, half of them failed a drug test, and of the half that was left, of that 50 percent, the other half couldn't read and write properly," Haley said. "That's what we have in South Carolina," she continued. "We don't have an unemployment problem (the state's 10.9 percent rate is one of the highest in the nation.) We have an education problem."
Jim Giusti, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, which owns the River Site, told the press he had no idea what Haley was talking about with regards to applicants flunking a drug test.
"Half the people who applied for a job last year or year 2009 did not fail the drug test," he said. "At the peak of hiring under the Recovery Act we had less than 1 percent of those hired test positive."
Photo: Hundreds of job applicants stand in a snaking line in Hanahan, S.C. as they wait to get into a job fair. Alan Hawes/The Post and Courier/AP