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U.S. Department of Labor blasts Florida's unemployment aid program

TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Department of Labor slammed the state of Florida for making it difficult for some unemployed people to get jobless benefits, particularly the disabled and those who speak Spanish or Creole.

Federal officials found that Florida violated the civil rights of unemployed individuals, beginning in 2011, when it required them to apply online for benefits and take an "assessment" before receiving any unemployment check.

In response, the state Department of Economic Opportunity has agreed to enter negotiations with the Labor Department to make appropriate changes. Failing to do so could lead to Florida losing millions of dollars in federal aid for the program.

State officials said they questioned many of the "initial findings" but are working to improve the jobless aid program.

The federal government "was aware of the legislative changes to the re-employment system before its passage in 2011 and provided no objection," said DEO spokeswoman Monica Russell.

The latest figures show the state's unemployment rate is 7.5 percent, with more than 705,000 Floridians out of work.

Florida recently ranked lowest in the nation for the "recipiency rate" of jobless benefits (i.e., the number of eligible people receiving aid.). Only about 17 percent of Floridians eligible for unemployment benefits actually received them and the number of applications rejected for paperwork reasons has quadrupled since 2010, said George Wentworth, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project.

Many blamed the low rate of jobless benefits recipiency on a 2011 bill approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott. It forced all applicants for unemployment benefits to go online, ending the practice of allowing people to submit an application on paper or over the telephone. The law also required applicants to take a 45-question "assessment" to gauge their skills.

Several civil rights groups filed a legal challenge saying the changes discriminated against people with disabilities and those who have difficulty with English.

"The online requirements created severe obstacles for thousands of Florida jobseekers, especially those with limited English proficiency or disabilities that prevent them from using a computer," the groups alleged.

The Labor Department's Civil Rights Center agreed, ruling that the changes discriminated against such individuals.

The report quotes from a 2012 Times/Herald story documenting the troubles applicants were having with the program. A federal attorney said his attempts to call a live operator met long wait times and "hang-ups." People who could not speak English were given misinformation or hung up on when they tried to call the DEO for assistance, the report found. In many cases, they were unable to get jobless benefits, which provide about $230 a week for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

"On December 5, 2012, this attorney phoned the call center four times," the report states. "The first three times were again automatic disconnects due to high volume of calls."

The Labor Department said Florida failed to translate relevant information on its website in Spanish and Creole, and also failed to make adequate provisions for the disabled. The federal agency also found that those applying for unemployment frequently encountered long wait times, dropped calls or confusing information when seeking help from the state.

The DEO said it has already addressed many of the problems listed in the report and is working to continue to improve the jobless aid program.

Labor groups have also filed a separate, broader challenge against the 2011 state law, saying it creates "unlawful barriers" to jobless aid for all applicants. That challenge, filed last May, remains pending. Wentworth said the number of first-time applicants able to get jobless benefits has plummeted to 43 percent in Florida, compared with 70 percent nationally.

"The Florida unemployment program is riddled with obstacles that have made it difficult for all kinds of workers," he said.