TOPICS > Economy

Florida Struggles to Keep Up With Demands on Unemployment System

April 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the latest in a series of reports making sense of the economy, Paul Solman examines troubles for both those receiving and those paying for jobless benefits in Florida, where jobless rates are the sixth highest in the country.

JIM LEHRER: But first: another take on unemployment. It’s about benefits, and comes from Florida, where the jobless rate is the sixth highest in the nation.

“NewsHour” economics correspondent Paul Solman reports. It’s part of his continuing reporting on Making Sense of the economy.

PAUL SOLMAN: The public face of Orlando, Florida: family fun in Fantasyland. In reality, however, Orlando is a good deal glummer.

MAN: Walt Disney is not out there with pixie dust to fix this economy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Orlando has a 12.5 percent unemployment rate, highest since World War II, in a state still stunned by the great recession.

WOMAN: No experience is needed. We provide the leads for you, your transportation.

PAUL SOLMAN: At a job fair last week, besides the usual commission-only sales gigs and military recruiters, the pickings were slim.

Fortunately for the long-term jobless, federal extensions of unemployment insurance have added up to a year of benefits, beyond the basic six months provided by the states. Not so fortunately, unemployment insurance isn’t proving to be much insurance at all, especially not here in Florida.

Mark Mora lost his banking job and applied for benefits on February 27.

MARK MORA, unemployed: I went online and did everything I was supposed to. That’s when they told me that my benefits were on hold until they can get confirmation from the employer, which could take three to six weeks. And I said, look, I have a family. This is a family of five. How is it that we have to wait this long for these benefits?

PAUL SOLMAN: Ada Mora had lost her software job in 2008. With Mark’s benefits on hold, hers were expiring.

WOMAN: I can’t sleep at night. I can’t, thinking about where we’re going to go. It’s very, very heartbreaking. I never knew that it was going to happen to us.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the Moras are the lucky ones. The day after our visit, Mark actually got his first benefit check. But why the delay?

MAN: You’re actually roughly about $500 short in order for you to receive your regular benefits.

PAUL SOLMAN: For one thing, like most states, Florida has been swamped by jobless claims, which more than doubled in the past year. The state’s unemployment insurance trust fund went broke in August, has been borrowing from the federal government ever since.

Also, in the good times, Florida underinvested. Its unemployment insurance operation runs on the computer installed when Richard Nixon was in office.

The state agency’s Robby Cunningham.

ROBBY CUNNINGHAM, communications director, Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation: Our mainframe system is a 1970s-era system, and it’s working very hard to keep up with the demand.

PAUL SOLMAN: Perhaps, says journalist Jim Stratton, but there are three major federal performance standards for processing claims.

JIM STRATTON, The Orlando Sentinel: Florida is now near the bottom third in each of those measures. It’s not paying enough of the claims within the federal time window. It’s not processing appeals quickly enough to satisfy the federal standard, and it’s not making the eligibility determinations quickly.

ROBBY CUNNINGHAM: Hey, Cheri. How are you?

PAUL SOLMAN: The state says it’s responding.

ROBBY CUNNINGHAM: And we have increased our phone lines. We have increased our staff. We have increased our hours. We’re, in fact, also in the process of replacing our mainframe system, so that will actually add another level of customer service when that comes online, probably in about 2013.

PAUL SOLMAN: 2013 — probably.

Right now, Florida’s unemployment benefits are fifth lowest in the country, tied with Tennessee. In Massachusetts, you can get up to $628 a week — the max in Florida, $275. But many people don’t even get that much.

Shannan Tucker lost her secretarial job in 2008. Based on salary, she got $266 a week in unemployment. Then, she took a part-time library job at $11 an hour. The state reduced her benefit accordingly.

SHANNAN TUCKER, Florida resident: And I’m still making the same as I would have unemployment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Then, she got laid off again.

SALLY MCARTHUR, attorney, Legal Aid Society, Orange County Bar Association: What happened was, when her new benefit year came up, she reapplied for benefits, and they recalculated her benefits and included the part-time work that she had done in the benefit calculation. When that happened, she got only $157 a week, instead of the $266 that she would have gotten had she just stayed at home and not worked during that time.

SHANNAN TUCKER: And I’m like, how can this be? I’m penalized because I’m getting a lower amount for working and taking the initiative in everything, and I’m getting penalized. And I feel that is so unfair.

PAUL SOLMAN: But that’s the law in all 50 states.

SHANNAN TUCKER: Because I cannot survive on $157 a week.

PAUL SOLMAN: But here’s an amazing fact: More than a third of eligible Americans don’t get any unemployment insurance at all.

Economist Raj Chetty.

RAJ CHETTY, economist, Harvard University: The fraction of people who are eligible for unemployment benefits and actually receive them varies significantly across states, and is only about 65 percent or 60 percent, on average, in the U.S. Now, that’s particularly striking when you compare it to the numbers in Europe, where that number is more like 95 percent or 97 percent.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ninety-five percent to 97 percent of people in Europe take unemployment insurance, only 60 percent to 65 percent here in the States?

RAJ CHETTY: Yes. The rules are arcane and complex. And what should you be doing when you lose your job? Looking for another job and trying to manage, right, not figuring out the unemployment insurance system rules.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for Florida, almost half of the eligible unemployed are getting no insurance payments, though employers are required to have paid their premiums in full. In fact, that may be part of the problem. It pays for a company to challenge a worker’s claim.

RAJ CHETTY: When you lay off lots of workers, as a company, you have to pay higher unemployment taxes. Employers have an incentive to try to contest individuals’ unemployment benefit claims, because they are paying part of the cost of — of those unemployment benefit claims.

And how would you do that? You try to claim that you fired the employee for cause, rather than laid the worker off, or that the person quit.

WOMAN: Objection. Objection.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lawyer Laura Pichardo on a telephone hearing, with an employer disputing a claim filed by a cashier fired in September for supposedly stealing a customer’s cash.

WOMAN: And right there gives the claimant $40.02 right there. But there’s no evidence here that that money went anywhere except somewhere on the register.

PAUL SOLMAN: The cashier denied stealing, and the police backed her up. So, the state approved the woman’s claim. But it’s gone unpaid for six months while the employer fights on. This is its third appeal of a finding for the cashier.

WOMAN: She’s out of a job. That’s slap number one. Now she can’t even get her benefits. She is fortunate in the sense that she has family close by that she relies on. But, if it wasn’t for that, she would probably be homeless.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sometimes, when the employer doesn’t challenge a claim, the state does. Dave Zabukovec was laid off from his job as a graphic artist in 2008, and filed a claim, after taking a weeklong real estate class. He reported that he had not looked for work that one week.

The state informed him by mail that he was eligible for the maximum benefit, but no checks ever came. Why not? He was told he had been disqualified, but he never noticed the letter that was sent informing him of the news. So, he asked for a hearing to explain what had happened. The man from the state’s response?

DAVE ZABUKOVEC, Florida resident: Did you receive the letter? And that’s all he wanted to know. And I — and that’s it. So, I answered his question the way he wanted me to answer it, and then the case was closed, decision made.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not a penny for Zabukovec to help support his stay-at-home wife and two young daughters, though his employer had paid into the insurance system on his behalf for years. Unable to find work, he exhausted his savings.

DAVE ZABUKOVEC: Basically spending all that I had saved up, my life savings, I guess, to pay the bills. And I took loans against some of my IRAs. And I took a $10,000 loan off one of those that I’m paying back presently, two credit cards that I maxed, and then some family help from time to time when I absolutely needed it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Zabukovec has found jobs, three of them, at a sign shop during the day, stocking supermarket shelves at night, trying to sell real estate on the weekend. He’s back up to making half what he used to.

DAVE ZABUKOVEC: I’m trying to reduce my anxiety and just do what I can for my family. And if I can keep a roof over their head and keep their bellies happy — or full, you know, then I’m doing something. You know, and I’m just — I’m hoping and praying that, you know, it’s going to be better.

PAUL SOLMAN: As are many of the 1.1 million Floridians still unemployed.