Editorial: Jobless deserve better from state

Published May 10, 2013

If Florida's unemployment compensation system were a private business that depended on customer satisfaction, it would have been shuttered long ago. But unfortunately for the unemployed, Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity has run the system just as some Republican leaders wanted: by denying thousands of legitimate claims over the past four years. Once again, the federal government has been forced to come to the rescue of Floridians whose state government has failed them. As the governor seeks re-election, he needs to correct a situation that increases cynicism about government and has resulted in the recent recession bringing even more pain to unemployed Floridians.

The U.S. Labor Department's Civil Rights Center issued a sharp rebuke to Scott's department last month, saying the agency's administration of unemployment compensation violated the civil rights of unemployed Floridians, particularly those who are disabled or speak Spanish or Creole.

The federal agency's investigation began shortly after the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 decided that all unemployment applications in Florida needed to be submitted over the Internet — ignoring that 40 percent of applicants preferred to use the phone. For applicants to collect an average weekly check of just $230, the Legislature also required them to answer 45 questions and prove they were contacting at least five employers weekly. Never mind that unemployment compensation is underwritten by private employers and only available to employees who are not fired for cause.

The Labor Department also found Florida cut too many corners as it moved to an online-only application process: It failed to translate relevant information into Spanish and Creole, the state's two largest minority-language groups; it failed to provide adequate provisions for the disabled to apply for benefits; it operated a hotline for complaints and questions that was routinely overwhelmed; and it frequently disconnected callers or promised return calls that never came. And when potential beneficiaries succeeded in reaching a live operator, their success at obtaining the information they needed was not assured.

None of this is a surprise. Throughout 2012, various Florida media outlets reported the implementation problems with the Legislature's 2011 law change. A 2012 Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau story noted how difficult it was to get a phone call to the hotline answered. Florida now ranks last in the nation for the percentage of people eligible for unemployment benefits who actually receive them. Only 17 percent of applicants have navigated the official byzantine maze.

The initial response to the Labor Department's report from Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity was not encouraging. The agency defensively claimed the federal agency was responding "to questionable allegations by a special interest group." Regardless of who initiated the complaint, the reality is that Floridians who qualify for unemployment compensation are failing to receive it simply because Scott's administration — with the Legislature's blessing — has made it too difficult. That's just bad and ineffective government, and the governor should fix it.