More bad news for jobless Floridians: Benefits will run out sooner

TALLAHASSEE — The state's 836,000 unemployed workers are in for more bad news: Their unemployment benefits are going to start running out sooner.

State officials said this week that 20 weeks of federal extended unemployment benefits are to start disappearing next month. That's on top of three weeks of state unemployment benefits that evaporated in January for newly unemployed workers.

Bottom line: The meager check for the state's unemployed — $275 a week — is going to have to stretch further.

The change is more the result of policy decisions in Washington and Tallahassee than a reflection of the state's improved economic scenario.

"It's not fair to characterize it as an indicator of an improved economy," said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project. "It's just an indicator that the economy hasn't gotten worse."

About 30,000 people are currently drawing extended federal benefits. How long someone can receive unemployment benefits depends on a person's individual circumstances — mainly when they first started receiving their benefits. The state and federal government had been paying benefits for a maximum of 99 weeks. That number will be smaller going forward, though how small depends on the state's unemployment rate and whether Congress acts to extend another program set to expire in December.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity estimates 14,000 Floridians may apply for extended benefits through May 12, the last week they can be paid regardless of any benefits remaining on the claim. Some may be eligible for a 10-week extension through June.

The department will notify recipients of the phase-out by mail.

Florida is one of eight states losing the additional benefits, which are expected to be phased out nationwide by fall.

To continue offering extended benefits, Florida's unemployment rate would have needed to exceed 10 percent based on a formula devised by Congress called the three-year "look-back." Officials knew that was unlikely to happen.

The number of people receiving unemployment assistance in Florida has been in decline since peaking in mid 2009. Recipients of federal and state unemployment compensation dropped from 561,736 on Jan. 31, 2011, to 345,052 on March 31, 2012.

Economists and Gov. Rick Scott credit a brightened economic outlook.

But advocates for the unemployed say the program's phase-out is another blow for people out of work.

In 2011, the Republican-led Legislature passed several measures to restrict access to unemployment compensation, including moving the application process online, requiring an online workplace skills review and making recipients prove they made contact with at least five prospective employers each week, among other business-friendly moves.

Florida became the first state to implement a sliding scale for the maximum number of weeks state compensation is offered, ranging from 12 to 23 weeks depending on the unemployment rate. The maximum used to be 26 weeks, standard for most states, before kicking into federal extensions.

"A lot of damage was done to the (unemployment compensation) safety net by the Florida Legislature in the name of saving money for employers and the state," said Valory Greenfield, staff attorney for Florida Legal Services.

Her nonprofit law firm represents the Miami Workers Center, which asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate Florida's system after the unemployment compensation changes were implemented. The center alleges that the changes discriminate against people who speak limited English or have disabilities.

A Labor Department spokesman said the investigation is ongoing.

Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@tampabay.com.

More bad news for jobless Floridians: Benefits will run out sooner 04/26/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 27, 2012 7:19am]

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