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May 2012, Week 4

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Fri, 25 May 2012 22:19:21 -0400
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Florida Right-Wingers Erect Barriers to Unemployment
Claims

By Isaiah J. Poole
May 24, 2012
http://ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2012052124/florida-right-wingers-erect-barriers-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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