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Florida denying jobless benefits to thousands, groups claim

A national workers’ rights group has filed a federal complaint over Florida’s revamped unemployment compensation system, claiming that the Sunshine State has become the most difficult place in the nation for unemployed people seeking benefits.

Last year, Florida overhauled its unemployment compensation system, reducing the number of weeks available and enacting several new requirements for those who seek jobless benefits.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) and Florida Legal Services say the changes have slammed tens of thousands of unemployed Floridians. The complaints say only 15 percent of eligible unemployed Floridians are actually getting benefits, ranking Florida dead last in a nation that averages 27 percent.

“When you take all of these [changes] together, you’ve created a program that has erected insurmountable barriers for people who are eligible,” said Valory Greenfield, staff attorney at Florida Legal Services.

The groups have asked U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to investigate.

Under the new law, which took effect in August, job-seekers who want to receive the roughly $275 weekly unemployment checks must complete a 45-question “skills review” test and provide documentation showing that they are actively looking for work. Most applicants have to apply online because the popular option of filing claims by telephone was eliminated last year. The skills test alone has nixed more than 40,000 eligible applicants, according to the complaint.

A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, who has pushed to overhaul the state’s unemployment benefits system, stood by the reforms, saying the test helps make sure unemployed people have the right skills for the labor market.

“Requiring jobless Floridians to take a skill assessment test is the right thing to do, not just for them, but also to ensure Florida’s tax dollars are spent on making sure our workforce is the most qualified in the nation,” Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Scott, wrote in an email.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which runs the benefits program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

In a letter to Solis, Florida Legal Services and NELP highlighted data showing that Florida is denying applicants for jobless benefits at rapidly increasing rates. The number of unemployment compensation applicants who have been denied has increased 66.7 percent in Florida since last year, according to federal data compiled by NELP. In the first three months of this year, 86,627 applicants were denied benefits, compared to 51,981 during the first three months of last year.

Between June and December 2011, the number of people who filed initial claims for unemployment compensation dropped 15.7 percent in Florida, compared to 5.2 percent nationwide. Since Florida has been creating jobs at a slower rate than the national average, it is not likely that the state’s steep drop in initial claims can be attributed to more people finding work.

Still, Scott often points to the slimming unemployment compensation rolls as evidence that his administration has been effective at helping people get off government assistance and back into the private sector. Scott signed the law last year, and has pushed other reforms in an attempt to rebrand the unemployment compensation system as a “reemployment assistance” program.

“About 230,000 people that were on unemployment when I took office are not on unemployment now,” Scott said in a radio interview last month.

Greenfield says those numbers tell only part of the story.

“It’s disingenuous to push the success of a program that got people off benefits who might not be working,” she said. “They might be homeless and they might be going without food.”

April’s state unemployment rate fell to 8.7 percent, down from 10.6 percent in April 2011. More than 800,000 Floridians are currently unemployed. Earlier this month, extended federal unemployment compensation benefits ended for several thousand Floridians.