State officials seek congressional probe of Labor Dept. over feds’ findingsby John Kennedy | June 5th, 2013
Gov. Rick Scott’s administration pushed back Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Labor over the federal agency’s finding that 2011 changes to the state’s unemployment compensation system discriminate against minorities and the disabled.
The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity wrote to U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, calling for an investigation into what it claimed is the “potential politicization” of the Labor Department.
The letter from Robert Sechen, DEO’s general counsel, concluded that Labor investigators “collaborated with the political group that filed the complaint” over the state’s requirement that those seeking benefits file online and complete a skills test.
In April, the Labor Department reached an “initial determination” that the state effectively violated the civil rights of laid-off workers by installing a system difficult to navigate.
“In this case, this flawed process has resulted in a federal agency recklessly maligning the reputations of hundreds of hard-working state employees, who come to work each day to fulfill a mission of helping unemployed Floridians get back to work,” Sechen wrote Wednesday.
The DEO move seems partially inspired by the increasing focus on other agencies under President Obama, including the Internal Revenue Service, accused of political activity for targeting conservative organizations for closer scrutiny. The U.S. Justice Department also is under the microscope for seizing phone records from the Associated Press.
In the Florida case, the The National Employment Law Project, Florida Legal Services and Miami Workers Center challenged Florida’s law in 2011, charging that sweeping changes to how Florida workers must file claims denied unemployment checks to thousands of eligible Floridians.
Critics also said that workers’ frustration with the system could be aiding Scott’s goal of reducing unemployment. Some workers may abandon their job search or just leave the state, falling out of Florida’s labor market.
The state in recent weeks entered into negotiations with the federal government to reach voluntary compliance with the ruling. It also put in place remedies to make unemployment insurance available to job-seekers unable to complete online claim requirements.
But Sechen on Wednesday said Labor officials have since been trying to “coerce” the state into acknowledging “each and every finding in USDOL’s flawed investigation.” Sechen said it was time for Congress to investigate the agency he accused of using tactics ”improper, retaliatory, intimidating and…far below acceptable standards of conduct.”
Val Greenfield, an attorney with Florida Legal Services, said Wednesday that her organization has had limited contact with Labor Department investigators. Since the April finding, negotiations have been conducted solely between the state and federal officials, she said.
“We were very surprised by this letter,” Greenfield said. “We are completely unaware of any bias in this investigation. But this action is very disappointing for Florida workers.”