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Review warranted

May 26, 2012
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Saying Florida's Unemployment Insurance program "has become so egregious that it cannot go unchallenged," a pair of legal advocacy organizations announced Thursday that they have filed a complaint with the U.S. Labor Secretary asking for an investigation.

The National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services say reform measures passed by the state legislature last year have placed so many administrative barriers in place that thousands of qualified unemployed workers are being denied benefits to which they are entitled in violation of federal law.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity denies the allegations, according to the Associated Press, which reached the agency via email.

Count us among the businesses that believe reform was needed. Count us among the businesses that believe former standards sometimes rewarded terminated workers who committed serious violations of reasonable company policies.

But count us out when the pendulum swings so far as to block qualified workers from collecting benefits funded by taxes we, as a business, are required to pay.

The new law did several things.

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Among the changes, it eliminated both paper and telephone filing. According to the complaint, telephone filing is the primary application method used by workers nationwide.

These methods allowed access for the unemployed without computers, the unemployed who cannot afford internet fees, and those who need assistance with filing due to disability or language barriers.

Meanwhile, although being warned by the U.S. Department of Labor that implementing a "skills test" as a condition of initial application would be a violation, the state included that new condition - and then applied it to new applicants as well as those continuing to collect benefits, a group that did get federal signoff.

According to state numbers obtained by the National Unemployment Law Project and Florida Legal Services, between Aug. 1, 2011 and April 14 of this year, 43,680 claimants were denied benefits specifically because they didn't properly complete the test that includes 45 questions concerning math, reading and research skills. Kind of a mini FCAT for the unemployed.

The first quarter of this year saw a 200 percent jump in denied benefits solely due to a failure to meet new procedural requirements, the complaint maintains.

"There were 61,128 denials in the first quarter of 2012 versus 19,676 denials the first quarter of 2011," the joint release states.

And employers? Did recession-slammed businesses benefit monetarily?

Apparently not so you'd notice.

Unemployment tax rates actually went UP in 2012, according to the Florida Department of Revenue. The state agency cites the continued "unprecedented number of claims for unemployment compensation," increased claims for benefits which depleted the Florida Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, and the "large amount of unemployment benefits paid to unemployed residents."

The National Unemployment Law Project and Florida Legal Services urges the U.S. Department of Labor to launch a review to see if the state legislation is in compliance with federal law.

Given the issues on the table, and the number of unemployed denied benefits due solely to an apparent inability to jump through new hoops, we agree a review is warranted.

- Breeze editorial



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