By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) - The Department of Labor has ordered Florida to improve access to jobless benefits for people with disabilities or limited English proficiency in a ruling that could help make the state's unemployment insurance program more accessible to everyone, employment rights and legal advocacy groups said on Thursday.
"This is a huge victory," Valory Greenfield, an attorney for the non-profit Florida Legal Services, said of the Labor Department ruling.
"It's our expectation that this decision will have implications for the way Florida continues to implement its program with respect to all kinds of groups of people," Greenfield said.
Under revised procedures introduced in 2011, Florida requires everyone who applies for unemployment benefits to do so online and to complete a 45-question online exam that tests reading, math and research skills before they can receive a check.
The Labor Department's Civil Rights Center has been investigating the changes, based on a complaint filed by the National Employment Law Project and Florida Legal Services. In an initial determination, made public on Thursday, the department found that some of the more onerous online procedures may have opened the door to civil rights violations involving people with language and disability barriers.
"The way it's been operating does in fact violate certain federal discrimination laws," said George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project.
Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity, which administers the state's jobless benefits program, denied any legal violations. It said in a brief statement that the changes introduced in 2011 "conformed to federal law and regulations." Florida was working, however, to improve jobless aid, it said.
A Labor Department spokesperson said the federal government and Florida were now working together "to ensure that all persons who have limited English language proficiency or have disabilities, and who are eligible for unemployment compensation, have fair and meaningful access to those benefits."
Under a timeline laid out in its preliminary ruling, Florida was given 60 days beginning on April 5 to reach voluntary compliance with the ruling or face civil action by the U.S. Attorney General's Office and the potential loss of federal funding.
The ruling also provided a list of proposed remedies to fix some of the problems in Florida, which has a large population of people for whom English is not their primary language.
A separate, broader complaint filed with the Labor Department over the revisions to Florida's unemployment benefits program is still pending. Greenfield said the preliminary ruling was sure to set some precedent and influence other states considering online-only systems like Florida's.
"We think this signals a blueprint," she said. "It's telling these states, including Florida, that if you're going to do this you have to do it in a thoughtful way and protect people's rights."
She did not elaborate, but Florida ranks among the most tight-fisted states in the country when it comes to providing jobless benefits for the unemployed.
The average unemployment benefit paid to recipients in Florida was just $231 a week last year. Only Alabama and Mississippi paid out less in average weekly jobless aid.
Florida also ranks among the lowest in the nation when it comes to the number of eligible people receiving jobless benefits. In Florida these benefits are available for only 19 weeks compared with 26 weeks in most other states.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)