By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - Times look set to get tougher for the unemployed in Florida and the grim outlook has nothing to do with Friday's bleak U.S. jobs report.
It's because Florida is doubling down on revised procedures, introduced last year under Republican Governor Rick Scott, that workers' rights groups say have made it more difficult for Floridians to access unemployment benefits.
The state, already saddled with what critics describe as an increasingly frayed social safety net, ranks among the stingiest in the country when it comes to providing jobless benefits for the unemployed.
The changes under Scott include an online-only application process, since the option of applying for compensation by telephone has been eliminated. And there is also a requirement that applicants complete a 45-question online exam that tests reading, math and research skills.
The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating the changes, based on a complaint filed in May by the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services.
But new rules, from the agency that runs the state's unemployment insurance system, could soon make life even more difficult for unemployed Floridians without easy access to a computer.
James Miller, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said the rules will require anyone registering for work or unemployment benefits to provide the state and their employers with an individual private e-mail address.
"Unless a claimant has a language barrier or impediment or disability preventing use of a computer, they will be required to provide an e-mail address," Miller told Reuters.
"DEO is happy to assist those with any barriers to using a computer," he added.
Valory Greenfield, an attorney for the nonprofit Florida Legal Services, said the new requirement was a red flag for advocates for the unemployed. The DEO has already been "using every method in the book to trip people up" and to actively discourage them from filing for unemployment compensation, she said.
"NOT DESIGNED TO HELP"
"The idea that benefits might be contingent on providing this e-mail ... and getting in touch exclusively by electronic means, is really what's a concern to us," Greenfield said.
George Wentworth of the National Employment Law Project also voiced concerns about growing obstacles to unemployment insurance in Florida, saying the benefits system was especially deficient for people who don't have computers or are not computer literate.
"It seems as though it's been designed with the specific intent of discouraging workers from accessing benefits that they've earned," he said.
James Taylor, 49, an unemployed sales and executive management professional in the state capital Tallahassee, agreed that Florida's online unemployment benefits and job search program was anything but user-friendly. He spoke in a phone interview immediately after completing a bi-weekly online check-in with the system, recently dubbed "Reemployment Assistance."
"It doesn't seem designed to help generate new jobs but to keep me from being able to collect my unemployment," Taylor said. "The system is not designed to help the individual," he said. "It's just designed to fill a blank in any form."
Randy Brazer, an unemployed 42-year-old hospital and health care administrator based in Miami, said she too found the online benefits process cumbersome at best. "It's a fraudulent system," she said.
Brazer complained she had been denied four weeks of benefit pay because of failing to meet a deadline for taking the 45-question skills test.
"It's truly a caveat in the system to prevent people from accessing benefits," she added, saying she did not receive any clear notice or instructions about the need to complete the test as part of her application process.
"I lost four weeks of money, that's almost $1,000 of benefits," Brazer said.
"They're scamming people," added Alba Giampino, a 45-year-old administrative assistant who recently got off employment after finding work at a hospital in Tampa. She too said she had been denied several weeks of unemployment compensation for failing to complete the skills test, without being told she could be penalized for not doing so.
U.S. Labor Department records show that just 16 percent of eligible unemployed Floridians receive state jobless benefits. That puts it in a tie with South Dakota for last place out of 50 states and the District of Colombia, which holds second place at 17 percent.
(Reporting By Tom Brown; Editing by Diane Craft)