The U.S. Department of Labor has rapped the state of Florida for making it difficult for some unemployed people to get jobless benefits, particularly for the disabled and those who speak Spanish or Creole.
Florida's decision in 2011 to make people who apply for benefits do so online and take an "assessment" before getting a check are a violation of civil rights, DOL found.
The Department of Economic Opportunity has agreed to enter negotiations with DOL to make appropriate changes, according to a press release from the National Employment Law Center, Florida Legal Services, the Miami Workers Center and other groups.
DEO defended its program, and said the Department of Labor knew about the changes before they took place.
"DEO questions many of the initial findings by DOL," DEO spokesperson Monica Russell said in a statement. "DOL was aware of the legislative changes to the reemployment system before its passage in 2011 and provided no objection."
At 16 percent, Florida recently ranked lowest in the nation for the “recipiency rate” of jobless benefits (i.e., the number of eligible people receiving aid.)
Many blamed changes made by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature for the low rate of jobless benefits recipiency. A 2011 law forced all applicants for benefits to do so online, putting an end to applications by phone or paper. The law also required applicants to take a 45-question “assessment” to gauge their skills. Several groups filed a legal challenge saying the changes were discriminatory against those with disabilities and low English proficiency.
“The online requirements created severe obstacles for thousands of Florida jobseekers, especially those with limited English proficiency or disabilities that prevent them from using a computer,” the pro-worker groups said in a statement.
The DOL’s Civil Rights Center agreed with that sentiment and has ruled the changes discriminatory against people who are disabled and have trouble with English. DOL's findings state that DEO failed to translate relevant information on its website in Spanish and Creole, and also failed to make adequate provisions for the disabled. DOL also found what several people seeking benefits have complained about--long wait times on the phone, dropped calls and confusing information.
The report quotes from a 2012 Herald/Times story documenting the program's troubles. A federal attorney said his attempts to call a live operator also met long wait times and "hang-ups"
"On December 5, 2012, this attorney phoned the call center four times," the report states. "The first three times were again automatic disconnects due to high volume of calls."
DEO said it has already addressed some of the challenges faced by the program and is working to continue to improve jobless aid.
The labor groups also filed a separate, broader challenge against the changes, saying they create “unlawful barriers” to jobless aid for all applicants. That challenged, filed last May, remains pending.
The pro-worker groups have called a press conference for Thursday afternoon to discuss the DOL findings.
Read the decision here.
Full statement from DEO is below:
As reflected by the rapidly improving economy in Florida, our Reemployment Assistance Program is working and is helping all Floridians get back to work. DEO questions many of the initial findings by DOL. DOL was aware of the legislative changes to the reemployment system before its passage in 2011 and provided no objection. Now a different division within DOL, in response to questionable allegations by a special interest group, is challenging those very same laws. Nevertheless we are committed to working with our federal partner to ensure that Florida’s economy continues to grow.
The 2011 changes in law requiring internet filing and the Initial Skills Review were reviewed by the USDOL and we were advised that those changes conformed to federal law and regulations. In an effort to be as accommodating as possible, individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and disabilities are not required to complete their Reemployment Assistance application online, nor are they required to complete an Initial Skills Review. The Miami Workers Center has actually mischaracterized the tentative determination which was that because LEP and disabled persons were exempted they were not receiving the benefit of the Initial Skills Review.
As noted on page 53 of the Initial Determination, we have “demonstrated a willingness to comply,” many tentative determinations have already “been remedied,” and “DEO continues to improve access of LEP persons and persons with disabilities” to the Reemployment Assistance Program.