A bill introduced Thursday by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) would also require claimants drawing benefits six months or longer to search for work at least 20 hours a week.
"Engagement in volunteer service will encourage unemployed workers to maintain job skills, marketability, and a sense of self-worth while providing for the betterment of their communities," Burr said in a statement. "Even more, the active job search requirement will enhance the integrity of the unemployment system and its ability to identify and serve those most in need."
Burr's bill dropped right as Republicans and Democrats are deadlocked over a reauthorization of federal unemployment insurance programs and a 2 percent cut to workers' Social Security payroll taxes. Those items and several other domestic spending measures are set to expire at the end of the month.
Republicans on the negotiating committee are already pushing for a host of unemployment reforms, including allowing states to drug test workers applying for benefits and denying aid to people who don't have high school diplomas. A Burr spokesman said the senator wouldn't mind if his proposal got wrapped into the broader package. Seventeen other senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), signed on to Burr's bill.
Worker advocates said the legislation amounts to just another effort to demonize people laid off through no fault of their own in order to undercut the costly government programs that support them -- much like what happened with welfare recipients in the years leading up to welfare reform in 1996.
"This proposal is very much about 'welfarizing' federal unemployment insurance benefits," said George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. Wentworth noted that the bill borrows language from the 1996 welfare law. Burr's bill allows "work activities," as defined by that law, to reduce the required public service.
Several state legislatures have mulled proposals to require people receiving unemployment benefits to do volunteer work. At least a dozen have pushed drug testing for the jobless. Federal law says qualified unemployment claimants can only be denied benefits for fraud or reasons related to their job loss; Burr's proposal would change that.
The unemployed, for their part, volunteer at a lower rate than the general population, according to the most recent government data. In the year ending September 2010, 29.2 percent of people with jobs volunteered, compared with 23.8 percent of people without jobs. (New data will be released later this month.)
Needless to say, if jobless workers are required to volunteer, to them it might not feel very much like volunteering.