Florida Considers Forcing Jobless to Volunteer for Unemployment Checks

With more than 1.1 million people out of work in Florida, one state lawmaker wants to make them volunteer in order to collect unemployment benefits.

Republican State Rep. Kathleen Passidomo has introduced a bill that would require the jobless to volunteer at a nonprofit for at least four hours each week.

"This may be a way to energize people to find a job," Passidomo told FoxNews.com. She said the idea came from her 87-year-old father, a retired physician who volunteers at a senior health clinic. He noticed that when there's an opening at the clinic, volunteers are the first to be hired, she said.

"So my thought was this is an opportunity – a win-win for everyone," she said. It gets the unemployed "out of the house, gets them involved in a community project. So this would be a way for the unemployed people to give back. And what that could do is create a relationship. A lot of executive directors at nonprofits are knowledgeable about what's going on."

The bill isn't far off from what Gov. Rick Scott proposed when his transition team issued a report in December on overhauling the state's unemployment system that is awash in more than $2 billion of red ink. Florida's unemployment rate hit 12 percent in December, above the national average of 9 percent.

Scott's team, which said in the report that the unemployed "put little effort into finding a job," proposed that after 12 weeks, the jobless should start community service to keep collecting unemployment checks.

But not everyone thinks Passidomo's proposal is a good idea.

"It looks to me to be inconsistent with federal unemployment law," said George Wentworth, a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for the unemployed.

Wentworth said that while it's a "positive thing" for the unemployed to volunteer, it cannot be mandated.

"The unemployment insurance program is just that, an insurance program," he said. "If you earned wages sufficient enough to qualify for a weekly benefit after losing your job through no fault of your own, they system is set up so you don't have to go through additional requirements that are unrelated to the fact of your unemployment."

Wentworth explained that if the Labor Department finds that states are out of compliance with federal law, they could lose their tax credits for employers and money to run the benefits system. The maximum tax credit for employers who face a 6.2 percent federal unemployment tax (FUTA) on the first $7,000 paid to each employee is 5.4 percent. Put another way, employers in Florida would no longer be able to pay a 0.8 percent FUTA if the state passed an unemployment law regarded as inconsistent with federal law.

Florida isn't the first state to consider forcing the unemployed to volunteer for jobless benefits. Last year, a similar proposal failed to get through the Hawaii legislature. In Virginia, Ginger Mumpower, a Democratic candidate for state representative, also proposed forcing the unemployed to work for free in return for benefits. Mumpower lost to Republican Greg Habeeb in a special election last month.

State Rep. Mack Bernard, the top Democrat on the Economic Development & Tourism subcommittee, where the Passidomo's bill currently resides, said he believes her proposal would "put an additional burden on people who are struggling."

"I don't think that's proper," he told FoxNews.com.

He also the bill would impose additional burdens on the government by forcing it to track who did and didn't volunteer.

"We need to limit our intrusion on the people who are the most vulnerable," he said.

Passidomo acknowledged that her proposal could be flawed.

"The only issue that I think could be a real problem is unfortunately, we have a $4 million shortfall in our budget so adding another program that has a cost association might now work – at least not this year," she said.

But she added, "Even if it doesn't go anywhere, I'm glad people are thinking creatively about how we can foster economic growth."