News Column

Florida Flunks Federal Jobless Claims Standards

July 15, 2013

The agency running Florida's unemployment program has changed its name and its top leadership but is still failing to meet federal standards in crucial areas.

The Department of Economic Opportunity lags on getting initial unemployment checks out on time, takes too long to determine the eligibility of some applicants and often doesn't fully evaluate claims, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In all three categories, Florida ranks in the bottom third of states and falls below the national average. The report covers the time between January 2011 and March 2013.

"The scores are consistently low, almost across the board," said Maurice Emsellem, co-director of the National Employment Law Project. They indicate that Florida "has a serious quality problem."

NELP, a worker-advocacy group, often is critical of Florida's unemployment system. Last year, it called for a federal investigation of a state law that NELP says tries to prevent laid-off workers from receiving jobless benefits. That review is ongoing.

The Labor Department numbers show Florida ranks 37th when it comes to making timely first payments and 46th in determining the status of claims initially flagged for potential eligibility questions.

Federal officials say 80 percent of those cases should be resolved within three weeks. Florida does so just 47 percent of the time, falling below the national average of 68 percent. Texas handles 78 percent of such cases within the three-week limit, and California resolves 76 percent of claims in that time.

The Labor Department also requires that 87 percent of first-time benefits be paid within two weeks of a claim. Florida hits that target 80 percent of the time. Ohio's rate is 95 percent while New York's is 87 percent.

Florida is not the only state falling short of the federal benchmarks. Just 19 states met DOL standards for timely initial payments, and 12 met the requirement for resolving potentially problematic claims within three weeks.

On a more general measure of quality, Florida posts similar numbers. Labor Department audits show claims are properly -- and fully -- evaluated about 60 percent of the time. The federal goal is 75 percent.

Florida, Emsellem said, "is consistently at the bottom of the pack."

Orlando resident Sharon Willis suspected as much. She's been out of work since early last year and says she's had to wrestle with the state several times to collect her benefits. It's particularly bad, she said, whenever the federal government makes changes to the existing program.

"The whole system seems to shut down," Willis said. "It just takes a long time to do anything."

The state, however, has improved in one key area. Since 2011, it has resolved at least 80 percent of its claims appeals within 30 days. That's up significantly from 2010, when it handled just 45 percent of appeals in that amount of time.

DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims said the department's performance was hampered by a record number of claims, heavy workload, staff turnover and an aging computer network.

Sims said the agency has created a team specifically to improve on the federal benchmarks. Its recommendations -- which include more training and reorganizing some staff -- coupled with a new computer system scheduled to launch this fall are expected to increase "both accuracy and efficiency."

During the worst of the recession, the state struggled to handle the flood of laid-off workers swamping the system. That has eased, but Florida's relative performance on many Labor Department measures has changed little since 2009.

At that time, Florida got about 82 percent of its first-time checks out within the required 14-day window. It resolved a little less than half of all flagged claims within three weeks.

DEO is Gov. Rick Scott's signature jobs agency and charged with ensuring that jobless Floridians get their benefits -- which max out at $275 a week -- in a timely way. It was created in 2011 from the now-defunct Agency for Workforce Innovation as Scott sought to exert more control over Florida's job-creation efforts.

But the new department has been marked by high executive turnover. Though less than two years old, DEO has had five executive directors -- three permanent and two temporary.

Sims said Friday that executive turnover "has not had an impact on DEO's performance."

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Source: (c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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