Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Hurdles to Jobless Benefits

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Hurdles to Jobless Benefits

Article excerpt

FLORIDA: Critics say online requirement and others create barrier to access

TALLAHASSEE

Nearly two years after Florida changed its jobless benefits program, critics contend unemployed workers have a harder time getting compensation.

Beginning in 2011, the state required unemployed workers to apply for their benefits online and to complete a 45-question skills assessment test. Unemployed workers must also show that they made at least five contacts with potential employers each week to maintain their benefits.

In a meeting of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee on Tuesday, some lawmakers and advocates questioned whether the changes denied some unemployed workers access to the system.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said unemployed workers in her district are having trouble meeting the online requirements in the law. "There are many people who do not have access to the Internet," she said. "They do not have computers in their homes."

Karen Woodall, a lobbyist for the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said the 2011 law made "significant changes" but noted a presentation Tuesday by the Department of Economic Opportunity did not provide any data on the number of unemployed workers who were denied benefits because of the changes and other "adverse impacts" from the law.

"Some of these changes have made it more difficult to access this system," Woodall said.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor last year, several groups critical of the law, including Florida Legal Services, said the number of unemployed Florida workers receiving benefits dropped to 17 percent in 2011, with a drop to 15 percent in the last quarter of that year.

That compared to a 27 percent national average, giving Florida one of the lowest rates in the country.

But Senate Commerce and Tourism Chairman Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who helped write the 2011 law, defended the changes. She said she was open to reviewing data about the law's impact but added that workers had an obligation to try to comply with the new requirements.

The state's unemployment rate has improved to 8.1 percent but some 760,000 Floridians remain unemployed and many rely on the benefits system, renamed the "reemployment assistance" program last year.

Among the major changes adopted by the state in 2011 was the decision to cut the maximum number of weeks for jobless benefits. …

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