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State changes rules for unemployement benefits

By Regan McCarthy

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-978101.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Florida's unemployment rate fell in May to about 10.5-percent from 12-percent about four months ago. Some said the downward trend meant the state was headed for economic recovery, but Regan McCarthy reports after the state delivered pink slips to more than 1-thousand employees at the beginning of the month, the tone changed. Workers now face a new wave of competition in the job seeker's market. Meanwhile a new law presents greater challenges for those seeking unemployment benefits.

A new law decreasing the number of months a person is allowed to collect unemployment benefits and increasing the actions a person must take in order to receive the benefits is coming into effect step by step. Work Force Plus supervisor Kimberly Moore says her office received a flood of calls when the bill was signed into law June 27.

"The first day of the signing we received 155 phone calls in the first hour just seeking information and clarification."

Four days later 1,300 newly unemployed workers laid off by the state entered the job seekers market. It's such an inundation of workers, Work Force Plus, a one stop unemployment shop that helps people find work, has just started a program for those and other workers who've been part of a mass layoff.

"Welcome to _____________ How many of you work for the state?"

The program "Jobs equals paychecks now" started by Workforce plus provides monetary incentives to employers to train and hire recently unemployed workers enrolled in the program. About half of the more than 30 in attendance on the first day of the seminar are laid off state workers, the other half, like Danny Smith, have been unemployed a few months longer. Smith says he is beginning to feel desperate.

"The job market is pretty scary right now. I used to think that if I got my resume out or if I did enough foot work and research I could have a job pretty easily. That's the way it's always been. I'm 53. It's never been hard to find a job, to be honest. Not easy maybe, but not hard. Now I've been looking dead serious since I lost my job early this year."

Smith says he sends in several applications for jobs every day. And he says he's been called back for second and third round interviews. He says he knows he has the qualifications needed to get a job but he's stopped being hopeful.

"I don't get my hopes built up no matter what they say when I leave. That's the one thing you can't do. You can't put yourself you do the best you can to get the job. And you leave the interview and you start looking for the next one."

That's why Smith says a piece of the new law that requires benefit applicants to list the names of at least five employers they've sought work with, or give proof they've visited an employment center like Workforce plus will make *little* difference. He says for him, it takes only about 10 more minutes to fill out his benefits application online. And he says the requirement that people contact five employers a week won't be enough to get most people a job. What will make a difference, he says is another part of the law decreasing the number of weeks a person will be able to collect unemployment benefits. The change won't impact him because the rule doesn't kick in until January, and those who've applied before then will be grandfathered into the system and besides, he'll be out of benefits well before then. But he says he feels sorry for people who will be affected. He says that's just more pressure for them to take whatever job they can get.

"Wendy's, fast food places pay the least that they can pay. And after taxes it's a job for, I don't want to offend anybody, but it's for kids, it's for starters, it's for people looking to add a little money, it's for I've seen seniors do it. It's not for someone who needs to support someone or make a living."

Smith turned in the paper work he needs to be part of the "jobs equals pay checks program" and made note of a number that he can pass along to employers he'd like to have a job with so that they can also join the jobs equals pay checks program and take advantage of the incentives awarded for hiring participating workers, but he's not convinced it'll help much.

"I don't know how this is going to come off, but I think that this could be useful to a lot of people who don't have computers or internet access at home. I think it would be very helpful for the people who need the help the most. To me, I can access everything online."

Other changes in unemployment benefit applications include a switch to an online system. There aren't any brick and mortar unemployment offices in the state where a person can apply in person. All benefits applications must be filed electronically. Smith says it's no big deal for him, he has internet at home. A recently out of work teacher says she doesn't mind the change either. She files for her benefits at the library. Agency for Workforce Innovation officials say the changes will streamline the processes, like cutting paper and mailing costs, and help to hold benefit seekers accountable.