TALLAHASSEE -- When 65-year-old Raymond Togyer isn’t polishing his resume or cold calling potential employers, he’s spending hours trying, unsuccessfully, to navigate Florida’s labyrinthine unemployment compensation system.
Togyer — who was laid off for the first time in his adult life from a high-paying civil engineering job in June — has spent the last seven weeks sending and resending letters, staying on hold for hours and checking state websites, all to no avail.
He is one of hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Floridians flummoxed by what has become the most tightfisted unemployment compensation system in the nation.
“They told me that I was eligible and that I was going to be getting $275 a week,” said the Togyer, of Fort Lauderdale . “That was seven weeks ago. To this day I have not received anything. I’m draining my savings to pay my bills.”
Critics say Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s Legislature are behind a multipronged effort to restrict payments to eligible Floridians. A required 45-question “skills review” and an online-only application system have combined to restrict thousands of applicants from receiving aid. The U.S. Labor Department is investigating the complaints. A spokesman told the Herald/Times that Florida is cooperating with their inquiry, but they would not comment further.
Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but in the past he has touted the required 45-question “skills review” as a commonsense reform intended to create a more skilled workforce.
Whatever the intention, the impact is clear: Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Floridians have been cut off from a safety net system for those who find themselves suddenly without income.
Florida’s “recipiency rate” — the proportion of unemployed people who actually receive jobless benefits— is 16 percent, the country’s lowest. Only one in three applicants for unemployment compensation in Florida receives any money, ranking the state dead last among the 50 states.
“The cumulative impact of these changes is that the process of filing an initial claim for benefits is much more difficult for the average Floridian,” the National Employment Law Project wrote in a recent complaint to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
The unemployment compensation system is designed as a form of insurance that businesses pay into to help fund temporary assistance for employees who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. In Florida, the average weekly check is about $230. Currently, about 800,000 are unemployed.
Scott and the Legislature overhauled Florida’s system in 2011, adding a long list of requirements and making all applicants apply online. The law required applicants to take a 45-question skills assessment, contact five employers every week and reduced the maximum number of weeks from 26 to 23.
Scott pushed more changes this year, rebranding the program as Reemployment Assistance and cutting the business taxes that fund the program by $800 million over three years.
The program is mired in debt, and the transition has been anything but smooth.
Frustrated applicants complain of misinformation on the state’s website and customer service phone lines that can be tied up for days on end.