Florida’s Unemployment Claims System Illegally Denies Benefits to Tens of Thousands of Jobless

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Unemployed workers in Florida are being systematically shut out of receiving their unemployment insurance benefits at alarming rates under a new set of procedures put in place by the state, and the results violate federal law, according to a complaint sent to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Changes implemented August 1, 2011 by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), including a 45-question online academic exam and the elimination of telephone claims-filing—the method most widely used in most states— have created unprecedented barriers to unemployment insurance that violate Section 303(a)(1) of the Social Security Act, attorneys at the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services argued in a letter sent to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis.  Where federal law requires states to “establish methods of administration reasonably calculated to insure payment of benefits when due,” new data indicates that Florida’s claim-filing procedures do not comply.

Among the findings detailed in the complaint:

  • The percentage of jobless workers in Florida who actually receive state unemployment insurance (UI) is lower than anywhere else in the country.  Florida’s recipiency rate for state jobless aid fell to just 15 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.

  • Between August 1, 2011 and April 14, 2012, Florida’s DEO reports that 43,680 claimants were denied benefits specifically because they did not complete the initial skills review.  The “individual skills review” is a 45-question online exam that tests math, reading and research skills and must be completed before a worker’s first unemployment check can be issued.  The skills review is linked to the initial application for benefits.

  • The first quarter of 2012 saw an increase of more than 200 percent over the year before in the number of unemployed workers denied benefits for “non-separation“ reasons, i.e., failure to meet procedural reporting requirements related to proving availability for work, work search and completion of the skills assessment.  There were 61,128 denials in the first quarter of 2012 versus 19,676 denials in the first quarter of 2011.

  • February 2012 was the first month that less than half of new applications for unemployment insurance in Florida resulted in benefits (49.1 percent), compared to 70.7 percent nationwide. That 21.6 percentage gap is the widest it has ever been, despite the fact that the Florida’s unemployment rate is still well above the national rate.

For even experienced online users, the initial claims filing and “skills review” test now take about an hour and a quarter to complete.  It would be reasonable to assume that many would-be claimants are dissuaded from even filing their claims under these circumstances.  Florida has not revealed how many people have initiated an online claim and aborted the process before completing the filing.

In addition, the state has not made the 45-question math, reading and research “skills review” test publicly available for review – nor has it indicated precisely how the tests that are completed are being used, if at all.

If you have experienced a denial of a claim for unemployment insurance in Florida since August, 2011, due to the online filing or online "skills" test requirement, please share your story with us here.

According to the Sun-Sentinel Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office released a statement saying: "Requiring jobless Floridians to take a skills assessment test is the right thing to do, not just for them, but also to ensure Florida's tax dollars are spent on making sure our workforce is the most qualified in the nation.”

It is hard to see how denying unemployment benefits to otherwise-eligible jobless workers because they did not complete an online math, reading and research exam is going to help make Florida’s workforce “the most qualified in the nation.”

For those who do receive unemployment insurance, Florida already pays among the very lowest weekly benefit amounts in the nation.  Last year, to make matters worse, Florida enacted harsh reductions in the maximum weeks of state benefits available to those it deemed eligible to receive them.

But now, according to the complaint, tens of thousands of unemployment insurance claimants in Florida are being unfairly denied access to benefits in a manner that violates federal law.

“Florida’s revised procedures make it just about as difficult as possible for unemployed workers to access unemployment insurance now,” said Valory Greenfield, staff attorney at Florida Legal Services. “The effect is that the state is blocking workers from accessing help they are qualified for and twisting the knife in the state’s ailing economy. Nowhere in the country is it this hard to get help when you lose a job.”

“This complaint is not challenging Florida’s right to operate an unemployment insurance program that already pays some of the lowest benefits in the country. Rather, this complaint is saying that no state, including Florida, is free to erect procedural barriers that keep otherwise eligible workers from accessing unemployment insurance,” said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

“States receive federal grants to administer their unemployment insurance programs, and one of the conditions for those grants is that they have procedures in place that facilitate the prompt payment of benefits to workers who meet basic eligibility criteria. Florida’s new procedures force workers who already satisfy the basic eligibility requirements to jump through additional hoops in the form of complex online transactions. Thousands of workers are being unfairly disqualified as a result. We are asking the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate and find that Florida’s procedures are in violation of federal law,” Wentworth said.

According to a report in the Sun-Sentinel, the Department of Labor has begun an investigation of Florida’s new unemployment claims procedures.

If you have experienced a denial of a claim for unemployment insurance in Florida since August, 2011, due to the online filing or online "skills" test requirement, please share your story with us here.

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