The State Where the Unemployed Are Least Likely to Get Benefits

by | September 24, 2015

By Michael Auslen

Most out-of-work Floridians will never see a jobless benefits check from the state.

In fact, a report this week from the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan research group, puts the Sunshine State at the bottom of the nation, tied with South Carolina, in the percentage of unemployed people who actually receive state unemployment insurance.

From June 2014 to June 2015, just one in eight unemployed people in Florida received benefits, the report says. It appears to be a new low. Just six years ago, at the height of the recession, more than 30 percent of those out of work received weekly payments.

Critics blame the state for making it harder for the unemployed to qualify for benefits.

The number of Floridians on unemployment insurance has fallen dramatically in recent years in tandem with new requirements from the state. Adding to the problem: A new online system for unemployment claims was plagued with glitches.

Nationally, about 27 percent of jobless receive benefits, though that rate has fallen since the recession as well.

"Unemployment insurance is a basic lifeline for America's workers when they lose jobs through no fault of their own," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), in a written statement. "Workers earn these benefits through their work histories, and like any insurance policy, the purpose is to help provide needed financial support when there is a catastrophic event -- in this case, involuntary job loss."

One of the biggest hurdles to receiving benefits in Florida has been the rollout of CONNECT, an online filing system for unemployment, which cost $77 million to start in 2013. After the website launched, applicants experienced months-long delays in receiving benefits.

State audits have called for major changes to CONNECT, which is managed by the Department of Economic Opportunity, and lawmakers have taken them to task, as well.

The study's authors also point to a law passed in 2011 that requires those seeking benefits to routinely report information about their job search, which has accompanied a steep rise in people being disqualified from benefits for not following the proper procedure. The requirements are "among the most onerous in the country," according to NELP.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who sponsored the legislation, said changes were needed to encourage people to look for work while receiving benefits and to stop those who should be ineligible from earning benefits.

"(The law) hadn't been changed since the '30s," Detert said. "Our studies showed that people didn't even start looking for a job until two weeks before benefits ran out."

Asked to comment on fixing CONNECT glitches and access to benefits, Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Jessica Sims said that the study doesn't paint a picture of the economy as a whole.

"The best way to assist someone who is unemployed is to create more opportunities for them to find a great job, and that's what we are focused on," she said.

(c)2015 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)