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Lawsuit Filed against Florida for Unfair Unemployment Practices by the State

 

TALLAHASSEE — 

With Florida's unemployment rate at a three-year low of 8.7 percent, Gov. Rick Scott says his policies are helping drive the state's economy on the "path to recovery."

But in a detailed complaint filed with the U.S. Labor Department, a pair of workers' rights organizations charge that sweeping changes to how Florida workers must file claims have denied unemployment checks to thousands of eligible Floridians.

Critics say frustration with the system also may be aiding Scott's goal of reducing unemployment. Some workers may abandon their job search or just leave the state, falling out of Florida's labor market.

"There are people not being counted in the unemployment rolls because they have given up looking," said Valory Greenfield, an attorney with Florida Legal Services. "But what we don't know is how many of them may have been eligible for benefits, but walked away after just not being able to get through Florida's system."

Since Aug. 1, Floridians seeking unemployment have been required to apply online and complete a 45-question test to assess their job skills.

The state's Department of Employment Opportunity, which oversees unemployment benefits, acknowledges the test can take 45 minutes to finish, with the application demanding as much as another hour's work.

Florida Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project are asking the Labor Department to investigate the state's unemployment compensation system.

They charge that only 15 percent of unemployed Floridians drew benefits in the last quarter of 2011, compared with 17 percent in the three quarters before the state's tougher filing rules went into effect. The national rate remained at 27 percent for all the periods.

Of those applying for benefits for the first time in January, 51 percent were denied in Florida compared with 29 percent nationwide, the groups' records show.

But James Miller, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity, said it's unlikely that difficulties obtaining benefits are leaving any workers uncounted.

"As long as a person continues to look for a job, they are considered unemployed - collecting unemployment is not a factor in how a person is classified," Miller said in an email.

Sean Snaith, a University of Central Florida economist, generally agreed, saying the federal government conducts a monthly survey to measure the extent of unemployment in the country.

The survey sample size is large enough to yield a jobless rate. But other issues are less precise, including how many Floridians drop from the rolls when benefits lapse or when they've retired, returned to school or just quit looking for work.

"We're seeing a lot of discouraged workers out there," Snaith said of the decline in beneficiaries. "Florida's system could be one more factor, but it's not the sole factor."

Miller said Florida's unemployment rate of 8.7 percent in April, the three-year low, had many factors. It included 804,000 Floridians unemployed out of a labor pool of nearly 9.3 million, but the labor pool also dropped by 28,000 that month.

What the law did

Florida's new online-­filing law was passed by the GOP-dominated legislature and signed by Scott in the spring of 2011. Going into effect in August were requirements that unemployed Floridians file for benefits online and complete a 45-question skills review before being eligible for a maximum $275 weekly payment. Another provision cutting maximum benefits from 26 weeks to 23 weeks began in January.

In the complaint before the Labor Department, the worker organizations said Florida's new system denies jobless Floridians the help they need when making claims and fails to warn them when their application is incomplete.

Even the legislature's decision this spring to rename the unemployment compensation system the "Reemployment Assistance Program " is potentially confusing to many trying to navigate through it, the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services said.

Unemployment benefits are paid by employers, and the changes approved in 2011 were pushed hard by the state's largest business associations.

State officials say the changes have saved businesses millions of dollars and have helped spur Florida's job growth.

Library visitation soars

John Callahan, director of the Palm Beach County Library System, said he saw the effect of the online requirement immediately, when thousands of jobless residents began turning to the library's free computers to file.

"Last summer, we began seeing a huge influx in people," Callahan said. "There are so many people needing to file online. Many also need help. Some people have never even seen a computer mouse."

The time it takes to complete an application and skills test is a problem for many filers, Callahan said. The county's computer terminals are programmed to shut off following an hour's use, possibly forcing many applicants to start over or abandon the effort.

"There's just a very high frustration factor," said George Wentworth, an attorney for the law project who helped prepare the Labor Department complaint. "It's a complex online transaction. And a lot of people trying to complete it just can't."

Internet issues not new

The law project and Florida Legal Services said the system is creating illegal barriers for eligible out-of-work Floridians.

The organizations contend Florida's law violates a provision of the federal Social Security Act, requiring states to "establish methods of administration reasonably calculated to insure payment of benefits when due."

The Labor Department told The Palm Beach Post it is reviewing Florida's new system. "If any state is found to be out of compliance, we will work with them to develop and implement a corrective action plan," the department said.

Trouble using the Internet to access government benefits is not new. Elderly or disabled residents and those without computer skills or access to an Internet connection can struggle when seeking to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid.

Florida's Department of Children and Families says about 90 percent of food stamp recipients apply online - an indicator, officials said, that most have access to computers.

But Wentworth said that what sets Florida's unemployment compensation program apart is that online filing is the only way applications can be made. Help can be sought at the Department of Economic Opportunity's One-Stop Career Centers, but the application and skills test must still be completed online.

Politically, reducing Florida's unemployment rate also is the central goal for Scott, who was elected on the promise of creating 700,000 jobs over seven years.

When April's unemployment rate was unveiled last month, Scott said, "The continued drop in Florida's unemployment rate is proving our economy is on the path to recovery, and Floridians are getting back to work."

And he told an Orlando radio station in April that he was proud of having reduced unemployment rolls by almost 230,000 people since he took office.

Scott's office says 97,800 jobs have been created in Florida since he took office, and the unemployment rate has dropped by 2.2 percentage points.

Scott's office didn't respond to requests for comment on the Labor Department complaint.

State Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, sponsored the 2011 legislation (HB 7005) that toughened the unemployment compensation system.

Holder, who expects to serve on a legislative working group next month that will review the system's tax structure and solvency, acknowledged that changes may be needed, but offered no guarantees.

"We are trying to make sure we are doing things right for both sides in this equation: the worker and the employer," Holder said. "If there's a better way to develop a system, we certainly should look at it."

 

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