Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Denying unemployment benefits is now good news?

There's a nifty little fact on Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity website.

If you go to the page where folks file claims for unemployment benefits, it cheerfully points out that the number of individuals seeking benefits declined from 556,941 to 325,448 in Rick Scott's first 17 months as governor.

That's just wonderful. Uplifting. One might even say it's terribly impressive.

One might also say it is horribly misleading.

You see, Florida isn't really efficient when it comes to actually providing unemployment assistance for its residents. Based on U.S. Department of Labor statistics, Florida is dead last in the nation in the percentage of unemployed workers receiving benefits.

Color me pinko, but I'm not sure that's something to brag about.

Now there are a lot of reasons why only 16 to 17 percent of Florida's unemployed have been receiving state assistance in the past couple of years. For instance, a lot of those unemployed have already maxed out their benefits. And others were not in their jobs long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance.

But there are some workers' rights groups who also believe a significant factor is policies enacted during Scott's tenure that have made it more difficult to apply for assistance.

"If you just look at the number of applicants that were disqualified in the first seven months this process was in place, it tells you something is wrong," said George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project.

"The process is not supposed to be a game of 'gotcha,' but that's what they're turning it into."

The U.S. Department of Labor is currently investigating Florida based on a complaint filed in May by the National Employment Law Project and the nonprofit group Florida Legal Services, according to Wentworth.

(Perhaps Labor folks should ask for hotel suggestions from Department of Justice investigators who came here to look into allegations of voter suppression, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.)

The issue with unemployment benefits stems from Florida's decision to eliminate telephone call centers and require all claims be made through the Internet.

The key word is all.

Don't have a computer? Tough. Canceled your cable and Internet service when you lost your job? Tough. Don't understand the online application? Tough.

Most states have an Internet claim process, but they also provide telephone applications for those uncomfortable or without access to computers. Florida is alone in this all-or-nothing policy. And it also extends to documentation of job searches submitted electronically every week.

This might explain why in the first quarter of 2012 more than 60,000 workers were denied benefits for procedural reasons, an increase of more than 200 percent from the year before.

Now historically, in times of recession, the percentage of unemployed receiving benefits has dipped. Accordingly, the average numbers have roughly gone from 37 percent to 27 percent around the country. Florida, however, has declined at an even more rapid pace.

"Some people have suggested there is an unspoken desire to limit assistance to the very, very persistent and the very, very tech savvy," said attorney Valory Greenfield of Florida Legal Services. "It's hard to imagine anyone would own up to that type of evil intent.

"I prefer to believe they just didn't think it all the way through when they came up with this process."

If that's the case, they still aren't thinking.

The state is now considering eliminating notices via the U.S. mail and requiring all correspondence be done through email.

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