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 say 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 give up their job search or leave the state, falling out of Florida's labor market.
"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," said Valory Greenfield, a lawyer with Florida Legal Services.
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.
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 one more hour.
Florida Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project are asking the Labor Department to investigate Florida's unemployment compensation system.
They say 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 was 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.