Iowa bill seeks to penalize underqualified job seekers

Applying for a great job that seems like a bit of a reach? You could face big penalties under proposed legislation in Iowa

As legislators look to make changes to the state’s unemployment system, Iowa Sen. Jim Carlin has crafted a bill targeting what he calls the habitually unemployed.

Carlin and other lawmakers claim some unemployed workers frequently apply for jobs they aren’t qualified for as a means of maintaining their weekly benefits. 

His bill would allow employers to report job applicants who are “manifestly unqualified.” After three such reports, Iowa Workforce Development could initiate an investigation and issue penalties, including revoking unemployment benefits. 

The legislation, which came under attack from labor unions, was tabled. But Carlin said he’s committed to addressing the population of people who stay on unemployment for long periods of time. 

“I do have some difficulty understanding why somebody can’t find a job in six months,” he said. “That’s just a tough sell.”

The bill was inspired from his own experience attempting to hire a paralegal for his law firm. Carlin placed a help wanted ad on job site Indeed. 

“I had pizza delivery people, people with zero — absolutely zero secretarial experience — any experience for a paralegal type position,” he said at the subcommittee meeting. “When I say zero, I mean zero experience.”

Lobbyists peppered lawmakers with questions on the bill. One asked how the law would treat those who apply for jobs they’re overqualifiedfor.

Another raised privacy concerns since prospective employers have no way of knowing whether an applicant is receiving unemployment checks.

Carlin said he was open to amending the bill, but remained committed to addressing the small group of people “who are really good at gaming unemployment.”

“This is just trying to correct a problem that exists,” he said. “I’m not saying it can’t be tweaked or fixed. But this is a problem that does exist.”

Matt Wadle told lawmakers about a time years ago when he was searching for a job after high school. He worked in a restaurant and then applied for a computer technician job in downtown Des Moines. 

“I had no computer technical skills,” he said. “But I was going to learn.”

He landed the gig and eventually earned a degree dealing with computers. 

Now a laborer at John Deere and a member of the UAW Local 450, he told lawmakers the bill could have a chilling effect for those looking for work.

“I went and applied for that job knowing I was underqualified,” he said. “But they gave me that shot.”

Julie Fugenschuh, executive director of Project Iowa, doesn’t believe many Iowans persist on unemployment long-term.

She said many people who come to her nonprofit for job training services rely on unemployment benefits while they seek retraining for new careers. 

“It’s a limited scope. It doesn’t go on and on forever,” she said. “And it’s certainly not enough to live on.”

But she said the unemployment system does encourage beneficiaries to haphazardly apply for jobs.

She believes Iowa Workforce Development should funnel workers to training programs or help them find job openings that meet their skillsets, rather than setting arbitrary quotas on the number of job applications they must submit. 

“I don’t think their system is set up very good,” she said. “If they had job navigators or sent them to places like Project Iowa, we could work with them and direct them to employment opportunities they align with.”

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