That Unemployment Form Might Violate Your Civil Rights

Michelle Chen May 3, 2013

Florida's online unemployment claim form takes 30 minutes to an hour to complete, and begins with pages of warning messages.

If you think being job­less is tough, try apply­ing for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. In Flori­da, sim­ply fill­ing out the form requires con­sid­er­able tal­ent and endurance. Accord­ing to a recent rul­ing by the fed­er­al Depart­ment of Labor, the state’s new online appli­ca­tion process is so fraught with arbi­trary obsta­cles that it vio­lates fed­er­al civ­il rights protections.

An ini­tial deter­mi­na­tion by the Depart­ment of Labor’s Civ­il Rights Cen­ter, announced last week, con­clud­ed that Florida’s recent­ly imple­ment­ed web-based unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits sys­tem effec­tive­ly deterred peo­ple from com­plet­ing the claims process because it was need­less­ly bur­den­some and com­plex. The CRC’s inves­ti­ga­tion found that the state failed to pro­vide ade­quate ser­vices or alter­na­tive appli­ca­tion pro­ce­dures to appli­cants who face spe­cial bar­ri­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and those with lim­it­ed Eng­lish proficiency. 

The new process for fil­ing for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, first rolled out in 2011 as part of a mod­ern­iza­tion” pro­gram, has intro­duced daunt­ing new hoops for appli­cants. The main quag­mire is a skills assess­ment” that can take as long as 45 min­utes. Activists point out that forc­ing some­one answer a long ques­tion­naire about their job skills and abil­i­ties, sim­ply to qual­i­fy for ben­e­fits, seems a con­ve­nient­ly back­hand­ed way to arbi­trar­i­ly exclude applicants. 

Although advo­cates crit­i­cize the sys­tem as a whole as unnec­es­sar­i­ly bur­den­some, the CRC com­plaint, brought by the Mia­mi Work­ers Cen­ter, focus­es on peo­ple pro­tect­ed by the anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions of the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act and Title VI of the Civ­il Rights Act. Though the ini­tial deter­mi­na­tion is not a final rul­ing, CRC’s inves­ti­ga­tion has found that the state has failed to meet fed­er­al stan­dards for ensur­ing equal access. So the sys­tem actu­al­ly repro­duced the same social bar­ri­ers that made it hard for these vul­ner­a­ble groups to climb out of unem­ploy­ment. That is, immi­grants with lim­it­ed lan­guage abil­i­ty, who are often rel­e­gat­ed to the worst-paid, least sta­ble jobs, and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, who suf­fer extra­or­di­nar­i­ly high unem­ploy­ment rates, may have been arbi­trar­i­ly denied the mea­ger ben­e­fits pay­ments that might be their main finan­cial fall­back as they strug­gle to find work.

The sup­posed pur­pose of the state’s online skills assess­ment is to bet­ter assess the needs of the appli­cant. But that infor­ma­tion is extract­ed at a high price. As a pre­req­ui­site for qual­i­fy­ing for unem­ploy­ment pay­ments, the CRC con­cludes, the skills review tends to screen out per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties from ful­ly and equal­ly enjoy­ing the ben­e­fits of [Florida’s unem­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion] program.”

Spend­ing near­ly an hour fum­bling with a web appli­ca­tion would be frus­trat­ing for any­one. But if you’re poor, job­less and have to rely on a local library for Inter­net access, or suf­fer from a repet­i­tive stress injury that makes typ­ing unbear­able, or have trou­ble read­ing Eng­lish, it may be vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to sur­mount the state’s bureau­crat­ic fire­wall. Under the pre­vi­ous, sim­pler appli­ca­tion sys­tem, appli­cants could file by phone or fill out a paper form. Accord­ing to Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project (NELP), phone appli­ca­tions pre­vi­ous­ly account­ed for some 40 per­cent of filings.

George Went­worth, an attor­ney with the NELP — which has worked with Flori­da Legal Ser­vices to peti­tion the Labor Depart­ment about flaws in Flori­da’s appli­ca­tion process — says that eli­gi­bil­i­ty for unem­ploy­ment should be based on three sim­ple things: a work­ers’ unem­ployed sta­tus, whether she’s active­ly seek­ing work and whether she’s worked enough in the past to meet the basic require­ments. That should be all that’s nec­es­sary to get in the front door of the sys­tem,” Went­worth says, and what Flori­da has done is to erect a wall, rather than a door.”

Accord­ing to the CRC’s ini­tial find­ings, despite fed­er­al civ­il rights laws that enti­tle pro­tect­ed groups to alter­na­tive accom­mo­da­tions, the state has failed to pro­vide need­ed ser­vices. NELP’s analy­sis of the rul­ing out­lined sev­er­al exam­ples of dis­crim­i­na­to­ry barriers:

For exam­ple, crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion on the agency web pages was not trans­lat­ed into Cre­ole or Span­ish: an online tuto­r­i­al called Instruc­tions for Fil­ing a Claim and Reg­is­ter­ing for the Ini­tial Skills Review” appeared in Eng­lish only. Peo­ple who might be exempt from the Ini­tial Skills Review got no notice that such exemp­tions were avail­able. Per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties who could not use the com­put­er sys­tem, as cur­rent­ly con­fig­ured, were giv­en no alter­na­tive means of accom­plish­ing the Ini­tial Skills Review oth­er than online.

Test callers encoun­tered exces­sive hold times or has­sles when they need­ed lan­guage assis­tance, report­ed the CRC. One Pun­jabi-speak­ing caller was report­ed­ly advised by the agent, I don’t speak jib­ber­ish so call when you know English.”

As a rem­e­dy, the CRC’s ini­tial deter­mi­na­tion directs Flori­da to address bar­ri­ers in the appli­ca­tion process and work to com­pen­sate for­mer appli­cants who may have been unfair­ly reject­ed. In a response sent to Work­ing In These Times, Florida’s Depart­ment of Eco­nom­ic Oppor­tu­ni­ty said it stands by its pro­gram but will work with the Labor Depart­ment to improve the sys­tem and is still in the process of iden­ti­fy­ing which, if any, ini­tial deter­mi­na­tions have mer­it and has asked [US Depart­ment of Labor] to pro­vide doc­u­men­ta­tion. At this point, USDOL has not pro­vid­ed any doc­u­men­ta­tion to DEO about the ini­tial deter­mi­na­tions findings.”

Since the new sys­tem was imple­ment­ed, accord­ing to NELP, based on the pro­ce­dur­al require­ments, There were 61,128 denials in the first quar­ter of 2012 ver­sus 19,676 denials in the first quar­ter of 2011.” The num­ber of peo­ple receiv­ing ben­e­fits has dropped dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly sharply.

Peo­ple can draw their own con­clu­sions. But this was imple­ment­ed in a very strict and severe man­ner that ulti­mate­ly drove thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple away from ben­e­fits,” Went­worth says.

In addi­tion to the CRC com­plaint, NELP and Flori­da Legal Ser­vices have filed a broad­er com­plaint with the Sec­re­tary of Labor, charg­ing that Florida’s sys­tem vio­lates the Social Secu­ri­ty Act’s man­date that state admin­is­tra­tive meth­ods ensure rea­son­able access and time­ly pay­ment of ben­e­fits. But even if Flori­da even­tu­al­ly removes the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry bar­ri­ers, those changes would come too late for poten­tial­ly thou­sands of work­ers who appealed to their state for help through tough times last year, but end­ed up get­ting robbed by the bureau­cra­cy of pre­cious time and money.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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