After Dianelys Corrales Leon was laid off from her job at a day-care center last year, she applied for unemployment benefits, only to be rejected.
A Cuban immigrant who doesn’t speak English, Corrales Leon didn’t realize that she needed to take a 45-question skills test to qualify for a check. It wasn’t until Corrales Leon enlisted the help of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County that she began receiving $216 a week in benefits.
Florida violated the civil rights of laid-off workers when it required job seekers to apply for unemployment checks online, the federal Department of Labor has ruled.
The state did little to help workers who aren’t fluent in English or whose disabilities make it difficult for them to use a computer, the Labor Department’s Civil Rights Center found in a 56-page report issued this month.
In response, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Thursday dismissed the dispute as “questionable allegations by a special interest group.”
The Labor Department’s finding follows the spike in unemployment claims filed by Floridians during the Great Recession. Swamped by unemployed workers, the state in 2011 required job seekers to apply online for benefits, which in Florida top out at $275 a week. Laid-off workers also had to complete a 45-question test to assess their job skills.
Critics said the new rules made little allowance for speakers of Spanish or Creole who weren’t fluent in English, and that it was unfair to people who were too poor to own computers. Florida Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project last year asked the Labor Department to investigate the state’s unemployment compensation system.
The Labor Department ruled that the state violated the civil rights of non-English speakers by not helping them navigate the system.
Corrales Leon, who lives in Palm Springs, went to a state-affiliated career center in West Palm Beach to apply for benefits, but the worker she talked to there didn’t speak Spanish, and no one ever told her in Spanish how to qualify for benefits.
As a result, her application was rejected — a decision that was communicated to her by a letter in English. She phoned the state for an explanation, but that didn’t help, either.
“When I called the number, it was only in English,” Corrales Leon said in Spanish during a phone interview Thursday.
Kate Watson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said she twice appealed the state’s rejection before Corrales Leon began receiving money.
Worker advocate George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, said the state’s unemployment system seems designed to deny benefits.
“The Florida unemployment insurance system is simply riddled with obstacles,” Wentworth said.
One obstacle, critics contend, is that the state’s new system discriminates against the working poor, people who find themselves on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide.
Emma Ladson of Miami was laid off from her job and didn’t own a computer or have access to the Internet at home. She went to a career center to apply for unemployment benefits and saw other job seekers struggle to navigate the state system.
“I would often see people get frustrated and give up,” Ladson said.
Ladson herself was frustrated by long hold times at the state’s call center. She said hold times of 20 minutes or more were too costly for her, because she doesn’t have a home phone and relies on pay-by-the-minute cell phone plans.
“You could pretty much forget trying to get help on the phone,” Ladson said.
An executive at Florida Legal Services said it’s unclear how many Floridians were unable to collect benefits because of the issues the Labor Department cited. An improving economy has eased the pressure on Florida’s unemployment system.
There were 655,000 Floridians counted as unemployed in March, down from 811,000 a year earlier.