01/24/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2012

Hire Just One: Congress Looks At Philanthropist's Unusual Jobs Idea

Philanthropist Gene Epstein says he donated $250,000 to assorted charities on behalf of businesses that hired unemployed people starting in 2009. Now he's trying to broaden his impact, attempting to sway Congress on a bill to encourage hiring the unemployed.

Several members of the House of Representatives have taken an interest in Epstein's idea, which would allow businesses to collect a new hire's remaining weeks of unemployment insurance in a move similar to a measure introduced in the House last year by Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio). Epstein, 72, has been lobbying for his version of the bill by relentlessly emailing and calling Republican and Democratic staffers.

"We are working with him," Tali Caiazza, a spokeswoman for Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), told HuffPost. "He came to us. He's a resident of southeastern Pennsylvania and we've been working with him and other offices to work out the details and put forward a good piece of legislation."

In 2010, Epstein, a former car dealer and real estate investor near Philadelphia, pledged to make a $1,000 charitable donation on behalf of any business that hired an unemployed person as part of his "Hire Just One" initiative. HuffPost and other news outlets interviewed businesses that participated and made hires that that year; Epstein said he reached his self-imposed $250,000 donation limit in no time.

Epstein said Hire Just One encouraged businesses to take a proactive approach to healing the economy, and that the message resonates. "They didn't do it because of the $1,000 to charity," he said. "They did it because it made sense."

The new Hire Just One proposal would allow a business that hires a laid-off worker to collect the remaining duration of the new hire's unemployment insurance. The business has to pay at least double what the person was earning in unemployment payments, and it can't eliminate a position in order to qualify. The new hire would have to be somebody who has been out of work longer than six months and receiving money from unemployment insurance. A bill has not been introduced, but Epstein shared a draft of the measure with HuffPost.

"I want to see the economy stimulated quickly," Epstein said. "A business has 120 days to sign on to this program once it's enacted by Congress."

In June of 2011, freshman Rep. Renacci introduced a bill called the "Empowering More Productive and Lasting Opportunity Act," which garnered bipartisan support and would have done essentially the same thing. The business would receive up to 90 percent of what the unemployed person received in benefits and would have to pay the worker at least 110 percent that amount. A modified version of Renacci's legislation was approved by the lower chamber in December as part of a broader bill that failed in the Senate.

That failed bill contained a host of reforms to the unemployment insurance system, some of which could be revived when Congress takes up another reauthorization of federal unemployment insurance in February.

Most labor and worker advocacy groups probably won't like Epstein's idea, as it directs unemployment money to businesses instead of holding it in reserve for workers. But the proposal is similar to one put forward by the White House last summer. The Obama administration's "Bridge to Work" plan, which had bipartisan support, would have let businesses train unemployment insurance recipients for a short period of time without having to pay them.

Epstein doesn't see why anyone would oppose his plan. "I cannot conceive in my wildest dreams how any advocacy group for workers would not completely be thrilled to endorse this program, which will provide the unemployed with dignity and new good paying jobs where their income will be, at a minimum, double what they're receiving on unemployment," he said.

Schwartz and Renacci's offices declined to say what they're planning, but Epstein intends to thank them with full-page ads in Philadelphia-area newspapers. "Your caring will change the lives of millions of people and get our economy on the track to prosperity," a draft version of the ad says.

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