A state law concerning the underemployed has placed Cape Girardeau County in a financial quandary: Either increase the hours and pay of a part-time employee or compensate her the difference in unemployment.
The question is tied to a 1998 law that some say penalizes public and not-for-profit entities for paying unemployment compensation claims as they come in.
Long story short, the Cape Girardeau County Commission on Monday approved bumping up the hours of the employee from 20 to 28 per week.
"I don't think we're interested in paying for someone to sit at home," Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy said.
Today, however, the commission will have to revisit the issue. The Missouri Department of Labor mandates the county emergency management office employee qualifies for 31 1/2 hours per week and a 50-cent raise from her minimum-wage pay of $7.25 an hour.
It all began a year ago, when the employee was hired with the help of an Emergency Management Preparedness Grant. At the time, the woman was unemployed. The grant covered her salary and, because she was employed part time, she received partial unemployment payments.
That unemployment compensation ended June 1, according to Richard Knaup, Cape Girardeau County emergency management director. His office received a letter from the state advising that because the employee was considered underemployed, the county would either have to increase her hours or pay unemployment from June 1 through the rest of the year.
Under a 1998 state law, government and not-for-profit entities may pay out unemployment insurance compensation dollar for dollar instead of quarterly into the insurance pool, like industry is required to do, according to Cape Girardeau County Clerk Kara Clark Summers. Because the county pays claims as they come in, saving taxpayers substantially on the estimated $91,000 a year it would otherwise cost, Summers said, the county is not afforded some of the same protections that private businesses have.
So public entities like Cape Girardeau County are mandated to compensate qualifying part-time employees, formerly unemployed and actively seeking full-time work, at the level of their jobless benefits.
"The county has never had a situation like this with a part-time employee," Summers said, "but because of the economy the way it is and the the job market, we may be seeing more of this."
Amy Susan, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Labor, said a public body or a not-for-profit may choose to reimburse the unemployment insurance trust fund for individuals who are claiming unemployment.
"If an employer is a reimbursable employer they can at that point chose to pay contributions on a worker if it's part time, or they can increase wages so that the person would no longer need to file unemployment," Susan said.
The employer basically would have to pay the employee at least $20 beyond the weekly benefit amount, "to cause them to no longer be eligible for benefits -- which would allow the employer to not have to reimburse the unemployment insurance trust fund," Susan said.
Knaup said it almost feels like the county is being penalized for doing what the Labor Department hopes employers will do, particularly during tough economic times.
"We thought we were doing something good by taking someone off of the unemployment payroll and giving them a salary," he said. "Now we're expected to bring her up to an income the state feels she should be making."
Knaup, Summers and the commissioners don't take issue with the employee's work ethic and her skills, and Knaup said there's plenty of work in his department and elsewhere to fill the hours.
Summers has filed a protest with the Department of Labor but said the county will comply with the law should the appeal fail.
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