The U.S. Department of Labor's Civil Rights Center (CRC) issued initial findings Thursday that the state's requirements that unemployment insurance applications must be submitted online and in English violate the applicants' civil rights.

In a conference call Thursday afternoon, representatives of the Miami Workers Center and the Federal Employment Bureau said that the decision is a victory for Florida’s unemployed workers who are disabled and for those with limited English capability. These workers, they said, have been “shut out of the system by the onerous online requirements,” including a “skills assessment” section that forces applicants to answer math and reading problems in order to qualify for benefits.

Valory Greenfield, senior staff attorney for Florida Legal Services and counsel for Miami Workers Center, said the decision refutes dramatic changes to Florida’s system for collecting unemployment which took place under Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, including the elimination of paper and phone applications.

George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney of the National Employment Law Project said that the CRC's lengthy 57-page preliminary decision demonstrated that the state of Florida's new policies hurt the unemployed.

"Only 17 percent of Florida's unemployed are receiving state unemployment insurance, ranking Florida 50th in the country," Wentworth said. Only 43 percent of Floridians who applied for benefits in 2012, he continued, ever received a first payment, compared to a national average of 70 percent.

"Florida's first payment rate has dropped roughly 20 percentage points since 2010. The number of workers who have been disqualified for purely procedural reasons," he said, "has increased over 400 percent since online filing and the initial skills review were mandated in 2011."

"The Civil Rights Center decision is an important affirmation of the rights of limited English speakers and disabled workers to access unemployment insurance," he said, adding that the Florida system is continuing to disenfranchise thousands of workers.

Currently, the process of collecting unemployment in Florida, Wentworth concluded, "is more like a wall than a doorway."

According to a press release, the state of Florida responded to the decision by agreeing to enter into negotiations with the CRC to put remedies in place to help unemployed workers who have been disenfranchised by the 2011 changes. Failure to do so could result in civil action by the U.S. Attorney General's office and loss of funding for Florida's federal unemployment insurance program.

Miami Workers Center Executive Director Thamara Labrousse said that since the 2011 changes, her organization has seen people struggle more than ever to collect their unemployment benefits from the state. In addition to technological hurdles, she said, the online skills assessment posed a particular burden.

Emma Ladson, a member of Miami Workers Center and recipient of unemployment benefits said on the call that she was laid off from her job in November of 2011 shortly after the application process went completely online. She described the difficulty of applying for benefits online, even though she didn't have a computer or Internet access at home.

Greenfield said that a team of volunteer attorneys has assembled in Miami to help claimants in the Miami-Dade area connect to the Department of Economic Opportunity and collect their current and retroactive benefits by calling (305)572-1855. Claimants in other parts of the state, she said, should contact their local legal aid or legal services program.

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