SunSentinel: SunSentinel: Why Does Florida Treat Unemployed Workers So Badly?

Most workers don’t think about unemployment insurance until they lose a job. But when that dark day comes, there is nothing more important than accessing the benefits needed to pay for essentials like food and housing while they look for new employment. What unemployed workers don’t count on is their state government blocking the door.

But that’s exactly what has happened in Florida over the past four years. It began in 2011, when the Florida legislature, responding to business lobbyists’ complaints about rising unemployment costs in the wake of the Great Recession, enacted dramatic restrictions on jobless aid and imposed new procedural hurdles for unemployed workers applying for that aid. The most severe cut replaced a 26-week benefit maximum with a sliding scale that currently caps benefits at 14 weeks, the second-shortest duration of all states.

The effect of those new restrictions and application hurdles has been devastating, according to a report from the National Employment Law Project. Florida now ranks at or near the bottom nationally in helping jobless workers. Only 12 percent of Florida’s unemployed are receiving unemployment insurance, tied with South Carolina for the lowest rate in the nation.

Other measures show equally dismal results. Fewer than 4 in 10 Florida workers who apply for unemployment ever receive a first payment, the second-lowest rate in the country. And ever since Florida mandated that all unemployment insurance applications be filed online, the number of workers who’ve been disqualified for not satisfying reporting requirements has quadrupled.

Normally, good government seeks to improve constituents’ access to programs and services, but Florida has done exactly the opposite, repeatedly making it harder for jobless Floridians to apply for the benefits they have earned through their wages. Overnight in August 2011, applying for unemployment insurance went from being a telephone transaction with a customer service representative to an online application where workers were basically on their own.

Immediately, thousands of workers were unable to successfully complete their applications, largely because of poor automated systems, lack of personal customer assistance and a new requirement called an “initial skills review” that required applicants to complete a 45-question online exam testing reading, math and research skills.

In the fall of 2013, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity launched, to disastrous effect, a new automated filing system known as CONNECT. Thousands more claimants experienced months-long benefit delays through the holidays, requiring the U.S. Secretary of Labor to intercede to get workers paid. Major problems with the design and testing of the new CONNECT system have been the subject of legislative hearings and a critical state audit. The system’s complexity is one reason that Florida has had the second-lowest rate of timely first payments in the nation since CONNECT was implemented.

In 2013, a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor resulted in a determination that the initial skills review and online filing system discriminated against workers with disabilities or limited English proficiency, but two years later, no compliance agreement to fix those problems has been reached. Fortunately, the Florida legislature finally made the skills test voluntary last year.

Today, Florida’s unemployment insurance program continues to operate like an obstacle course, and it’s getting worse. The number of disqualifications for reasons relating to work search and availability doubled to more than 137,000 in the year after CONNECT was launched, even though average weekly claims dropped by 20 percent. Does it seem reasonable to believe that so many jobless workers suddenly decided to stop complying with the rules? Or is it more likely that the system is playing an automated game of “gotcha”?

The fact that fewer than one in eight jobless Floridians is receiving unemployment insurance cannot be explained away by an improving economy. The state and national unemployment rates have followed a very similar trend line in recent years, but since 2010, the number of jobless Floridians found eligible for benefits fell by 62 percent compared to 35 percent nationally.

Florida’s workforce deserves an unemployment insurance program that is both fair and accessible. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Social Security Act. That law was intended to hold states accountable to standards of fairness and accessibility. There should be no exception for Florida.

George Wentworth is a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project. Cindy Huddleston is a senior staff attorney with Florida Legal Services.

Read the original piece at the SunSentinel.

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