Florida Right-Wingers Erect Barriers to Unemployment Claims

Thursday’s reports that unemployment claims are edging downward take on a slightly different cast after reading a complaint filed with the Labor Department detailing how a new Florida law is hindering unemployed people from claiming the benefits that are rightfully theirs.

The changes in the unemployment law are just one of the ways Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his tea-party-dominated legislature is remaking the state into a extremist conservative dystopia. They are detailed in a 10-page complaint sent to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis by Florida Legal Services Inc. and the National Employment Law Project.

These changes, which were enacted in 2011, “uniformly benefitted employers, making it more difficult for unemployed workers to access, qualify for, or maintain benefits, and decreasing the amount of benefits qualified unemployed workers are eligible to receive. Reasons to disqualify claimants were expanded, and barriers to securing benefit eligibility were either created or increased, seemingly with the intent to ensure that fewer unemployed workers access benefits.”

As a result, only 17 percent of Florida’s unemployed residents receive unemployment benefits; the national average exceeds 25 percent. And that percentage is continuing to fall.

This is significant because if Florida gets away with this, other conservative governors and legislatures, under pressure from corporate interests to lower their unemployment insurance costs by any means necessary, will follow suit.

Under the unemployment insurance law in Florida, HB 7005, the state eliminated all telephone and paper-based claims filing; the only way to file an initial claim is via the Internet. (Meanwhile, Floridians who don’t have computers and Internet connections at home might not be able to depend on access at the local library, because Scott vetoed funding for a program that helped local libraries provide computer services.) And the only languages that are available are English, Spanish, and, just recently, Haitian Creole.

Florida unemployment claimants also have to complete a 45-question “initial skills review.” It is a test that includes math and reading comprehension questions, plus questions that measure a person’s ability to locate information. Each category of questions has three levels, and advancing a level requires answering four out of five questions correctly in each category. A sample “level 3” math question asks, “Part-time employees make $7.50 an hour and can work a maximum of 20 hours a week. What is the most a part-time employee can earn per week?”

But while the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity has released this document that discusses the test, it has refused to release the actual test for review. “DEO claims that the test is proprietary and has rejected all requests by organizations representing workers to review the test,” the complaint says. “Thus, there is no publicly verifiable means to determine whether the test is, in fact, a valid measure of a claimant’s work skills, employability, or any other characteristic that relates to whether the claimant should be eligible for unemployment insurance.”

Also, while the law provides that a person who is illiterate or otherwise unable to take the test can apply for an exemption, there is no obvious way to claim such an exemption. And the call center handling unemployment claims questions has been stripped bare, with wait times running upwards of a half-hour. As the complaint notes, “for unemployed claimants without a landline, spending limited cell phone minutes on hold while they tie up a computer station at their nearest public library is not an option.”

Florida Legal Services and NELP are alleging that even though each individual component of the state’s unemployment claims program complies with federal law, the combination of measures violates a provision of the Social Security Act that requires state unemployment insurance programs to “establish methods of administration reasonably calculated to insure payment of benefits when due.” The cumulative impact of Florida’s unemployment claims process is to keep as many people as possible—particularly lower-skilled, lower-educated and lower-income people—from claiming unemployment benefits.

And it’s working. Denials of unemployment claims in Florida in the first three months of 2012 are up 66.7 percent from the same period last year.

This is another example of what life looks like when conservatism runs amok. In Rick Scott’s Florida, corporations were handed billions in tax cuts and were not asked to be accountable for what they did with those tax benefits, but millions of economically struggling state residents are now forced to run an often-wasteful gantlet of obstacles to get the most basic of support services (such as this failed program of screening welfare applicants for drug use).

Scott and his right-wing buddies will howl “States rights! Big government interference! Anti-business socialism!” if the Labor Department stands up to the state and defends the rights of workers to claim the benefits the law says they should have. But that is why we have a Labor Department—to defend workers against right-wing bullies like those in Rick Scott’s Florida.

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