Florida Unemployment Insurance Process Unfair: Ruling

The state violated federal civil rights law with its online application requirement for unemployment insurance: U.S. Department of Labor

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Workers' rights advocates in Florida said Thursday that they are encouraged by the initial determination by the U.S. Department of Labor that found Florida's online application requirement for people seeking unemployment insurance to be in violation of federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws.

The Miami Workers Center filed a November 2011 complaint alleging that the state's Unemployment Compensation Program was inaccessible to people with disabilities and those with limited English skills. It's now called the Reemployment Assistance Program.

The complaint came in response to an August 2011 move by the state to eliminate the ability for people to file phone and paper applications. It also required anyone seeking benefits to apply online and take a 45-question skills' assessment that tested math and reading skills, among other things.

As part of its 56-page finding the Department of Labor's Civil Rights Center said this month that the skills' assessment requirement in particular violated federal law.

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Florida Legal Services' Valory Greenfield, one of the attorneys who represent the Miami Workers Center, said that the findings show the state isn't satisfying its obligations to provide adequate access to benefits. She said no one is trying to simply sidestep the application process.

"Technology is not the enemy," Greenfield said. "Reemployment insurance provides a safety net to people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own."

A separate complaint filed with the Labor Department last May by the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services is still pending.

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DEO spokesman Monica Russell said in a statement that Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity questions many of the initial findings.

She said the Department of Labor was aware of the legislative changes to the reemployment system before its passage in 2011 and raised no objection then. Bu she noted that a different division within the department is now challenging "those very same laws" in response to questionable allegations raised by a special interest group.

"Nevertheless we are committed to working with our federal partner to ensure that Florida's economy continues to grow," Russell said.

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The Department of Labor's findings suggests several remedies for the state to rectify the situation. The list includes publicizing exceptions to online filing for those with language barriers, sending out a public notice to people providing an opportunity to apply for retroactive benefits, and providing special application methods for persons with disabilities.

It added that the DEO would be given an opportunity to negotiate an agreement to remedy the situation, adding that If the state follows through on voluntary compliance, a conciliation agreement would be drawn up.

If an agreement is not reached, the Department of Labor would enter a final agreement which could include disruption of federal funding for Florida.

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