Florida has made it very, very difficult to get unemployment benefits. This is a plus to Gov. Rick Scott, who then points to the low numbers of people collecting benefits as "proof" that his policies have improved the Florida economy -- even though they haven't, because the 800,000 unemployed Floridians now have no money to spend in the state, and thus stimulate the economy:
Scott renamed the program the "Reemployment Assistance Program" and cut the tax that funds the program by $800,000. The funding cuts have led to a logjam in the system as the call volume for the staff whose job it is to help applicants through the process is very high. There are numerous reports of people calling for assistance and never getting any help as calls go unanswered for days. Reporters who attempted to call into the system for help said that automated messages told them that there were hundreds of calls ahead of them in the queue and that the system hung up on them without them ever having talked to a human being. The cuts to the tax that funds the program have led to a massive deficit where the state borrowed $2.7 billion from the federal government to cover shortfalls.
Applicants also complain that the state's website contains misinformation about the program and that it is difficult to navigate. Failure to complete any portion of the application or skills test results in delays in compensation or outright rejection of access to the program. Frequently, those who face delays or rejection are not even told that they have failed to complete the full process and they can wait weeks without knowing why they are not being paid. The new rules also allow the state to deny compensation to workers for their actions that take place outside of work and have no connection to any job.
The effect of the new rules has been dramatic—hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers have lost compensation that they have earned at a time when they most need it. Florida now has the lowest rate of unemployed citizens who receive jobless benefits, with a mere 15% of eligible Floridians receiving compensation. That rate is much lower than the national rate of 27%. Only one-third of applicants ever receives any money, despite the fact that the program costs taxpayers no money and unemployment compensation is part of the benefits package that employees receive from their employers. Nationally, 29% of first-time applicants are denied compensation. The rate in Florida is more than 50%.
After a complaint was filed by Florida Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project, the United States Labor Department is investigating the new rules to determine whether or not they are illegal and require an undue burden on the jobless.
“This complaint is not challenging Florida’s right to operate an unemployment insurance program that already pays some of the lowest benefits in the country. Rather, this complaint is saying that no state, including Florida, is free to erect procedural barriers that keep otherwise eligible workers from accessing unemployment insurance,” said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.