The first of a pair of legal challenges to the state of Florida's legislature "modernized" unemployment compensation process has been deemed a violation of federal civil rights and anti-discrimination laws.
An investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor's Civil Rights Center after the Miami Workers Center filed a complaint found that a requirement implemented in 2011 that unemployed workers file online only did not provide adequate access to the benefits to which those workers were entitled.
We are not surprised.
- The process pushed by Gov. Rick Scott eliminated filings by phone - the method previously used by 40 percent of all filers - as well as filing by mail.
- It implemented a 45-question on-line "skills assessment" requirement, although the state had been advised against its implementation.
- On-line access for both filing and the "skills assessment" was limited, creating "severe obstacles for thousands of Florida job seekers," with those without computer access, limited English language abilities or disabilities most affected.
- The state's telephone assistance system was found to be "ineffective and deficient," according to a release from the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services, the agencies that filed the still-pending second complaint.
"Hours of operation were too limited; calls were dropped; outgoing messages were recorded in English only; inaccurate information was provided about accommodations and exemptions; and there were undue delays if callers needed an interpreter. The findings also noted an overall inability to reach a live attendant. Thus, a 'broken' phone system coupled with no meaningful alternative to the online processes left many unemployed Floridians effectively shut out from much-needed unemployment insurance," the release states.
The number of unemployed workers collecting under the new system fell to an estimated 15 percent - the lowest in the nation - with rejected claims topping 70 percent as the new process got under way.
It's a shameful litany of findings.
What is all the more troublesome is that these obstacles were put in place while state employment was at record highs. Simply stated, the state found fit to continue to extract high rates from employers (they went up again in 2012 despite the state-intended "efficiencies") even as it made it darn near impossible for many who had earned unemployment benefits to navigate the system and so collect.
Now Florida faces the possibility of losing federal funding if efforts to reach "voluntary compliance" with federal mandates are not forthcoming by June 4, 60 days from the U.S. Dept. of Labor's Civil Right Center's Initial Determination.
Let us be clear here.
As we stated last May when the second complaint was filed, 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 the taxes that we, as a business, are required to pay.
The state needs to come into compliance posthaste. We urge our local delegation to make sure this happens should the 60-day deadline for the written, voluntary "conciliatory agreement" be missed.
Meanwhile, those who feel they may have lost benefits due to an inability to comply with the new process because of barriers related to language or disability also have until June 4 to seek that lost compensation. Visit floridalawhelp.org for local legal assistance or call 305-573-0092, ext. 205.
- Breeze editorial