Gov. Matt Mead vetoes unemployment benefits bill

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Gov. Matt Mead has vetoed a bill he says would have made it easier for employers to deny unemployment benefits to terminated workers.

His office announced the veto, his first since taking office more than two years ago, after business hours on Thursday.

"There is room for improvement in our statutes related to the qualifications for unemployment compensation," Mead said.

In his veto message to the Secretary of State's Office, Mead said the original House Bill 237 could have been interpreted "that in no case would a discharged employee be eligible for unemployment insurance."

Mead blamed problems with the bill on a Senate amendment late in the legislative session that ended last month. He said he looks forward to addressing the issue in the coming legislative session.

Rep. Tom Reeder, the Casper Republican who sponsored the bill, said Friday that he was disappointed with Mead's veto and hoped the Legislature will revisit the issue.

Reeder said he intended the bill to better define the term, "misconduct connected with work," in state law so the state Department of Workforce Services could promulgate rules and policies.

"Employees and employers are more than willing to play by the rules; we just need to have the rules clearly defined," Reeder said.

The bill was amended in the Wyoming Senate to specify that the term "misconduct connected with work" meant action by an employee indicating a disregard of the employer's interests or the "commonly accepted duties, obligations and responsibilities of an employee."

The Equality State Policy Center and the Wyoming State AFL-CIO had urged Mead to veto the bill. They said it would have allowed employers to deny benefits to workers fired for unintentional violations of company policies.

Dan Neal, executive director of the policy center, said Friday he was pleased with Mead's veto. He said that as the bill was amended by the Senate, signing it into law would have allowed employees to be fired with no unemployment benefits for unintentional acts, such as forgetting to lock a door when they left work.

Neal emphasized that the purpose of unemployment benefits is to help people transition into other employment if a job doesn't work out for them. "The idea here is people need this money," he said. "It's not much. If you've ever been on unemployment, it doesn't pay very much."

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, voted against the bill in the Senate. He said he regards Mead's veto as a good thing.

"This is a safety net," Case said of unemployment insurance. "The idea is not everybody's the right fit for a job, and if they have to move on, this is a bridge and helps them stay on their feet, helps the economy to keep moving, on and on and on. It has a social purpose and we kind of accept that."

Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he didn't "necessarily agree with the governor on the dangers that he saw in the amended language, but I would agree that it's probably not the ideal language." Stubson, a lawyer, said he expects that the Legislature will be able to work out a bill that everyone agrees on in the future.

"Under current interpretation of the current statute, it's almost impossible for an employer to not pay unemployment, even when they terminate an employee for good cause," Stubson said. "You almost have to be caught with your hand in the cash register to be denied unemployment.

"The whole purpose was to restore some of that balance," Stubson said.

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