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Jobless benefits office closes

The state office that handled appeals of jobless benefits for the west coast of Florida has closed, the victim of federal budget cuts.

As a result, the nearly 1,000 area workers and employers who contest an unemployment claim each month will likely have their hearings delayed. And when they are scheduled, the hearings will take place by phone from Tallahassee, rather than in person.

Bonita M. Riggens, a St. Petersburg lawyer who often represents workers in such appeals when they're turned down for benefits, said she doesn't think the change bodes well for her clients.

"I don't know how a judge can make credibility decisions based on a disembodied voice," said Riggens, who routinely requested in-person hearings. "I don't think it will be good for the process as a whole."

The Tampa regional office, which shut down last week, was the busiest of the state's seven appeals offices. But it was the only one eliminated because of a $4-million shortfall in federal funding. Statewide, 30 jobs were cut because of the funding pinch; 18 of those positions were in the Tampa office, which was at the Workforce Florida center on N Florida Avenue. In addition to Tallahassee, the remaining appeals offices are in Jacksonville, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Robert Whaley, process manager for the state's office of appeals, said two factors influenced the decision to target Tampa for closure.

"We looked at the fact that a couple of years ago we had consolidated Tampa's claims (processing) operations in Orlando," he said. "We also believe we have a better chance of getting out of our rent obligation (for the office's space) in Tampa than elsewhere in the state."

With unemployment rising, the number of disputes involving a workers' right to jobless benefits has increased as well. Whaley said his agency's workload is 60 to 70 percent higher than two years ago, before the economic slowdown. There are now 6,000 to 7,000 appeals filed statewide each month; about 1,000 of those claims were being handled in Tampa.

The crush of claims meant Tampa's 10 hearing judges were working harder but getting further behind. Joyce Webb, who had been a hearings judge locally for a decade, said the judges worked six days a week, handling nine or 10 cases a day. About half of the hearings were held by phone, with the rest in person.

The judges, all but two of whom have law degrees, earned an average of $35,000 a year and worked mandatory extra hours. Webb said she accrued 70 hours of comp time in January alone.

"We were still a thousand cases behind," said Webb, who, like other judges and support staff, were given two weeks' notice of the Tampa office's closing and no severance, comp pay or offer to relocate. "There used to be federal guidelines that we had to hold a hearing on an appeal within 45 days, but the state of Florida hasn't been complying with the guidelines."

Whaley, who supervises the appeals' network statewide, said the average time between filing an appeal and a hearing is 39 days. He said about two-thirds of the appeals are initiated by workers who have been denied unemployment payments; the rest are filed by employers challenging the right of the worker to benefits.

Despite the backlog, Whaley said he expects the Tallahassee staff will be able to absorb the Tampa caseload and that conducting all hearings by phone will increase his office's efficiency. "t's certainly a challenge right now," he said. "Hopefully the resource issues will improve."

Webb, the former hearing judge, has already filed her own unemployment claim. She said she has new appreciation for delays in the process. If a claim is initially denied, the worker can go without a check for months before a hearing. If a claim is approved, then challenged by the employer, the worker receives checks during the interim but may have to pay them back if the hearing judge decides in the employer's favor.

"I can't imagine going months without checks or being told I have to pay them back," she said. "That seems grossly unfair."

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Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or (727)892-2996.

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