Václav Havel, who made his literary reputation describing how the old Soviet bosses distorted language to create a pseudo-reality, would have had great fun with an unemployment compensation program that became the Florida Reemployment Assistance Program, which should have been renamed the Jobless Benefits Encumbrance Plan.
Havel, the Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident (and eventually president), wrote about a politburo that employed a “language deprived of semantic contact with reality.” That sounds so much nicer than lies. We’ll go with that.
The Florida Unemployment Compensation Program was reconfigured last year into a bureaucratic morass that has the effect, if not the secret intent, of clogging up jobless benefits. The Miami Herald’s Toluse Olorunnipa reported that the new system begrudges benefits to only 16 percent of Florida’s unemployed workers. We’re dead last among the 50 states.
Not for moochers
Mind you, the program formerly known as unemployment compensation is not some kind of welfare giveaway with a roster full of shameless recipients mooching off society. It’s an insurance program that guarantees temporary assistance for employees who’ve lost jobs “though no fault of their own.” In Florida, the average weekly check is about $230.
But the rechristened “Reemployment Assistance Program” has been larded up with requirements that take applicants through a bewildering online maze that includes a 45-question “skills assessment test.” Recipients who finally manage approval must then demonstrate that they’ve applied for five jobs each week.
A friend of mine, tossed off his newspaper job last year, said he was docked a week’s worth of benefits after he applied for nine positions during one week but only four the next. He said the appeal process was so complex, overwhelming and unpromising that it hardly seemed worth the effort.
Hurry up and wait
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s 1-800 assistance phone number is another leap into the void. I called Wednesday afternoon, and the robot voice informed me that, due to the high volume of calls, I was 199th in line for help.
The new system has ramped up denials of applicants seeking unemployment benefits by 66.7 percent in Florida since last year. (In the first three months of 2012, 86,627 applicants were denied benefits, compared to 51,981 from January to March in 2011.) Despite Florida’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, the number of applicants filing for benefits through the complex system has fallen.
And Olorunnipa reported that eligible applicants can find themselves simply consigned to oblivion — never officially denied their benefits, but simply ignored by the faceless bureaucrats out there beyond the Internet. Meanwhile, the maximum time a jobless worker can receive benefits has been shortened to 23 weeks from 26.
But in the pseudo-reality imagined by Tallahassee, this bleak stuff has been declared great news. The unemployment rate in Florida, which is based on criteria other than unemployment claims, ticked up to 8.8 percent in July. Florida’s job growth lags behind the national rate.
But Gov. Rick Scott prefers to embrace, instead, this mighty drop in the number of workers receiving unemployment benefits. That has become his leading economic indicator, his proof that Florida, under his leadership, has stanched its unemployment crisis. In a speech last month, he bragged, “The number of people on unemployment has gone from 568,000 to 320,000 people.”
Of course, as Olorunnipa reported, 250,000 of those people had been tossed off the rolls because they had exhausted their benefits. And thousands of new applicants, who would have been eligible under the old program, had been denied compensation. Scott rather resembles a doctor who, after a disease has killed most of his patients, declares that he brought an end to the epidemic.
But Florida, you see, is in the midst of what we’ve decided to call an economic resurgence. We’ve declared an official end to rampant joblessness. Because, comrade, reality is what we say it is.