It turns out there may be another reason besides Gov. Rick Scott's job creation efforts that the number of Floridians seeking unemployment checks has been dropping. The Internet application for benefits is so cumbersome and the state's phone lines are so jammed that the unemployed give up in frustration. Whether intentional or not, running an unemployment compensation operation that makes it so difficult to file claims is a deceitful way to keep the jobs picture looking better than it is.
Florida ranks last in the nation when it comes to the number of unemployed people who receive jobless benefits, an average weekly check of $230. Just one in three of those applicants receive compensation, and only, apparently, if they are dogged about getting it.
Scott is not without accomplices. The Republican-led Legislature has reduced benefits for recipients from a maximum of 26 weeks to 23 weeks and made it harder to qualify. Applications — including a 45-question skills assessment — are only taken online. And applicants must prove they are contacting at least five employers weekly to maintain benefits.
But as Toluse Olorunnipa of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported last week, that is just the obvious way that elected leaders have turned their back on out-of-work Floridians. The other is administrative indifference. After applications are filed to Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity, they frequently sit there without action. Applicants can't get through on phone lines. Emails go unanswered. Paperwork is lost, forcing applicants to start over. Olorunnipa, despite several attempts over a week, was never able to reach someone on the agency's helpline. Once, a recording told him his call was behind 399 others.
Now the National Employment Law Project has filed a complaint with the U.S. Labor Department, claiming Florida has made it almost impossible for hundreds of thousands of applicants to even access the state's online application or get an answer on the phone. The federal department is investigating.
It shouldn't take Washington to make Tallahassee follow the law and do right by its residents. Unemployment compensation is designed as insurance covered by the businesses that lay off employees — not taxpayers. The program is currently in debt (and has a loan from the federal government), but lawmakers share the culpability because in good times they have never been willing to increase premiums enough on businesses to save for bad times.
In his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Scott promoted his private sector business experience at every opportunity. Few businesses would succeed if they offered the same sorry customer service as Scott has provided Florida's unemployed.