As the slow economic recovery shows signs of stalling, those with the most to fear might be Florida's unemployed. The state's year-old process for applying for unemployment benefits is too difficult, and it should not take nearly two hours to complete. The artificial obstacles, recounted in a complaint by two workers' rights organizations to the U.S. Labor Department, appear designed to suppress the demand for benefits rather than to make it easier for those who need help to get it.
Under rules that went into effect Aug. 1, those seeking unemployment benefits must apply online and complete a 45-question skills test just to clear the first hurdle of the process. For middle-class families this may seem like a breeze. But for those without Internet access, the elderly or non-English speakers, it can be a challenge. The ultimate result of the changes, say the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services, is that "the process of filing an initial claim for benefits is much more difficult for the average Floridian, and many potentially eligible claimants are being discouraged from filing." The groups say Florida has the lowest rate of benefits received in the country, with only 17 percent of the unemployed getting state benefits. The national average is 27 percent.
In approving the rules, Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature took a business-friendly approach too far. Businesses pay for unemployment benefits; now they pay less. The fact that the unemployment rate in Florida has dropped to a three-year low of 8.7 percent should reflect that more people are working, not that more people have given up looking or applying for benefits.
The groups say Florida's unemployment rules violate the federal Social Security Act, which requires states to "establish methods of administration reasonably calculated to insure payment of benefits when due." The Labor Department will have to come to its own conclusion, but it is absolutely clear that the state's changes have made it more difficult to apply.