TALLAHASSEE - Florida is violating federal law with procedural barriers, depriving thousands of jobless workers from receiving unemployment compensation, two legal organizations say in a complaint to the U.S. Labor Department.
The two groups, National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services, on Thursday also said Florida has put up more obstacles to unemployment compensation than any other state.
They outlined their allegations in a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis last week.
"The effect is that the state is blocking workers from accessing help they are qualified for and twisting the knife in the state's ailing economy," Florida Legal Services lawyer Valory Greenfield said in a statement. "Nowhere in the country is it this hard to get help when you lose a job."
James Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Economic Opportunity that administers Florida's unemployment compensation system, said the agency "is certain that Florida's statutory changes are in full compliance with federal law." He said in an email to The Associated Press when asked for comment that the U.S. Department of Labor was also consulted about changes to the system.
The legal groups contend a 2011 law passed by the Republican-led Florida Legislature made a variety of changes in the state's unemployment compensation system that unfairly prevent otherwise qualified workers from getting benefits.
The law requires workers to complete a 45-question online skills test and regularly report on their job searches and availability to work. It also eliminated filing for benefits by phone.
Those provisions have been barriers to getting compensation and violate requirements in federal grants the state has received to administer its unemployment insurance program, said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project. He said the requirements include prompt payment of benefits to workers who meet basic eligibility requirements.
"We are asking the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate and find that Florida's procedures are in violation of the law," Wentworth said.
The 2011 law was sought by business interests to help curtail skyrocketing unemployment insurance taxes paid by employers.
Even before it went into effect Aug. 1, only 17 percent of the state's unemployed workers received benefits, the lowest rate in the country, the groups said.
Florida's rate dropped to 15 percent during the last three months of 2011, the first full quarter the law was in effect, the group said.
From the time the law went into effect through April 14, state figures show that 43,680 claimants were denied benefits because they did not complete the initial skills review that includes the online exam, which tests math, reading and research skills.
In the first quarter of this year, 61,128 applicants were denied benefits for non-separation reasons such as the failure to meet reporting requirements and complete the skills assessment, the groups noted. That compares to just 19,676 in the first quarter of 2011 — an increase of more than 200 percent.