Dept. of Labor says Florida requirements to collect unemployment benefits was discriminatory

According to the 2011 law, if a person seeking unemployment benefits did not complete all three parts of the new forms within 17 days of applying online, the first unemployment check would be stopped. A contact card was to be sent telling the applicant to call and provide additional information. But according to attorneys representing such claimants, those calls never came.

Those attorneys discussed some of their clients' cases in a conference call hosted on Thursday by the Miami Workers Center, a workers rights group that initially asked the Department of Labor to investigate the new state benefits system.

Laverne Andreasen, a staff attorney for Jacksonville Legal Aid, discussed a client that she identified simply as "Mr. PH" in St. Augustine. She said he went to his local Workforce Office for help applying for benefits, where he was told to apply using one of their computers. But Mr. PH only spoke Spanish and had a hard time communicating with the agent at the office. "PH again struggled through the online process without an interpreter. Because his hearing disability and lack of English fluency was not accommodated, it took more time until PH understood that he needed to complete an initial skills review online in order to keep getting benefits," she said.

Kate Watson, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said her client, Dianelys Corrales Leon, was fluent in Spanish but limited in her ability to speak English. Corrales Leon was denied unemployment benefits for failing to take the initial skills review, even though no one ever told her in Spanish that she had to. "Her case is a good example of the many obstacles that limited English proficient persons face in the current reemployment applications process," Watson said, adding that it ultimately took six months for her client to get the benefits she was eligible for.

Mandy Mills with Legal Services of Greater Miami told the tale of her client, whom she identified only as "Ava." Mills said that Ava began applying for reemployment benefits via the Internet in August of 2011, and all was going smoothly until that November, when the computer system "inexplicably" refused to allow her to enter her PIN or Social Security number, which is required to file her information explaining what she was doing to look for work.

Mills said that Ava attempted to learn why she was being locked out by contacting the call center, but she was simply told to "keep trying." She then left her phone number, but nobody called her back. As a result, her benefits stopped coming.

In a press release, the Miami Center says the state of Florida has agreed to enter into negotiations to reach voluntary compliance with the ruling, and put in place remedies to make unemployment insurance accessible to job seekers unable to complete online claim requirements.

Beginning in August of 2011, the state of Florida changed the way that people claiming unemployment benefits had to file a claim. It could only be done on the Internet, as opposed to calling in one's hours as had always been the case, and new claimants now had to take an initial skills review test. But many of them were never told that, and as a result they found their claims for benefits being rejected.

That led to many people protesting those rejections, with a variety of legal aid groups crying foul, saying the changes were unfair. Apparently the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center agrees; the department has found the requirements to be discriminatory for Florida residents with limited English proficiency and those whose disabilities prevented them from successfully completing the online claims.

In fact, according to data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, in just the first three months the law took effect in 2011, 65 percent of claimants were denied unemployment benefits, a percentage rate three times higher than in the same period in 2010, and a stat that Governor Rick Scott's office was quite proud of.

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