Two legal groups want the federal government to investigate Florida's treatment of jobless workers following reforms that made the Sunshine State's unemployment insurance program the stingiest in the nation.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a law last year that sharply reduces the duration of benefits and makes filing unemployment claims much more of a hassle. The law requires claims to be filed online, creates a lengthy test with math and reading questions and requires workers to keep detailed records of their job search efforts.
In a formal complaint filed with the U.S. Labor Department, the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services claimed the law shortchanges people who should be eligible for benefits.
"Florida's revised procedures make it just about as difficult as possible for unemployed workers to access unemployment insurance now," said Florida Legal Services attorney Valory Greenfield in a statement. "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."
Specifically, the complaint stated that the law reduced the share of unemployed Floridians receiving benefits to 15 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, lower than in any other state. Nationally, 27 percent of unemployed Americans received state unemployment benefits in 2011.
From August to April, 43,680 Floridians were denied benefits because they didn't finish a 45-question test. Over the first three months of this year the rate of benefit denials for procedural reasons climbed 200 percent when compared with the year before. February was the first month when fewer than half of new applicants received benefits. Nationwide, more than 70 percent of new applicants received benefits.
Gov. Rick Scott's office defended the new law in a statement.
"One of Governor Scott's top priorities this year was to convert Florida's unemployment system into a re-employment system designed to help families return to the workforce," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said in an email. "The Governor believes we owe it to those looking for work to make sure they have the skills employers are looking for, and to provide skills training where it is lacking."
"Requiring jobless Floridians to take a skill 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," Schutz added.
The complaint acknowledged that the U.S. Labor Department reviewed and approved each reform for compliance with federal unemployment regulations but said the cumulative effect of the changes violated the federal requirement that state governments "establish methods of administration reasonably calculated to insure payment of benefits when due."
"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," said National Employment Law Project senior attorney George Wentworth in a statement.
"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," Wentworth continued. "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."
One of Scott's previous efforts to add new conditions to a safety-net program was halted last year when a federal judge issued an injunction against a new law requiring welfare applicants to pass drug tests.
A spokesman for the U.S Labor Department said the law is under review.
"We are in the process of conducting a review of Florida’s implementation of new state processes related to delivery of their unemployment insurance program [regarding] compliance with state and Federal law," the spokesman said in an emailed statement. "If any state is found to be out of compliance, we will work with them to develop and implement a corrective action plan.”
This story has been updated to include comment from the Labor Department.