(TNS) — When federal aid for jobless benefits runs out Dec. 31, hundreds of thousands of unemployed Floridians will again rely on paltry state-paid benefits that currently max out at $275 a week and 12 weeks, among the lowest in the country.
But Florida’s new legislative leaders aren’t inclined to hike the weekly amount when they convene in March.
When asked if the weekly benefit cap should be raised, House Speaker Chris Sprowls said he’s more focused on getting people back to work and fixing Florida’s local workforce development boards, which he thinks aren’t effective enough in connecting the unemployed with opportunities.
“What we have focused on is nobody wants to be on unemployment. I’ve never met a person who’s said I want to be on unemployment. They want to have a job,” said Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor. “That should be the focal point of the Legislature - making sure how do we break down barriers or create a pathway that if you want to work and you want to get a job it shouldn’t be so hard to find where that job is.”
Both Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson say they’ll investigate how the CONNECT system, the state’s jobless benefits system, failed in March when it became inundated with claims as much of society shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of Floridians went several months without receive benefits.
But they’re also sensitive to how any increase in benefits will affect businesses, which pay the unemployment tax that funds the benefits.
Simpson “supports a full review of Florida’s reemployment system,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said in a released statement. “This includes reviewing the level of benefits, requirements to receive benefits, and the associated impact on businesses who pay into the system.”
Democrats have been pushing for a complete overhaul of the system, with an increase in the maximum weekly benefit and extending the maximum number of weeks of benefits to 26.
“If you think $275 a week is enough when you lose your job to make ends meet and to pay your bills, then you’ve never stepped into the shoes of people that are less fortunate than you,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D- Orlando.
Under a law passed by Republicans in 2011, the maximum number of weeks is tied to the unemployment rate. If it is less than 5 percent, benefits max out at 12 weeks; if it’s 10.5 percent or higher, those out of work can receive up to 23 weeks.
The cap, though, isn’t adjusted until the new year, and since the economy was humming at 2.8 percentunemployment in February before the pandemic hit, state-paid benefits have stopped at 12 weeks all this year. Starting in 2021, they’ll be extended to 19 weeks, based on the state’s average unemployment rate during the third quarter of 8.7 percent.
Eskamani has led Democratic efforts to seek a special session to address the unemployment system since May but has been rebuffed by Republicans. She unveiled a proposed bill last month that would increase the maximum weekly benefit to $500 and extend the weeks to 26, require the Department of Economic Opportunity to determine eligibility within three weeks and set up an oversight office to review the program each year.
Despite Sprowls’ comments, Eskamani said she’s not giving up hope that GOP leaders will take up at least parts of her bill.
“Without a doubt, this is going to be an uphill battle,” Eskamani said. “What motivates me are the Floridians that we’ve been working with for nine months now, including many that have become homeless or are living in hotels and motels and can’t afford to pay rent.”
Some Republicans included fixing the unemployment system as part of their reelection platforms this fall. But Democrats made it one of the centerpieces of their campaigns, and Republicans ended up gaining seats in the Legislature.
In fact, Jose Javier Rodriguez, who was poised to be the sponsor of the Senate version of Eskamani’s bill, lost his Miami Dade County senate seat to Republican Ileana Garcia by 34 votes after a recount.
So GOP leaders don’t feel as much pressure to make the changes. Eskamani said it’ll take grassroots pressure from citizens to get the changes through.
Yet even if an increase in the weekly benefits were to advance in the Legislature, it could hit another roadblock. Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 requiring any tax increase to get a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the Legislature to pass.
Sprowls said an increase in benefits, which would entail an increase in the unemployment tax paid by businesses based on the amount of employees they have, could be considered a tax hike, making it more politically tricky to pass. In any case, he doesn’t want to hinder businesses as the state attempts to recover from the pandemic-induced economic downturn.
“It’s one more burden on them to reengaging in commerce and bringing back a full workforce of people who are fully employed,” Sprowls said.
Meanwhile, the state has been reliant on federal CARES Act funding to buttress its jobless benefits, and that money expires at the end of the year. Since March 15, the state has paid out nearly $18.7 billion in benefits, with more than $15 billion coming from the federal government.
If Congress doesn’t pass another stimulus package in the lame-duck session, out of work Floridians will be solely reliant on the state’s benefits.
“Congress needs to act because folks are living dangerously on the margins with these support tools,” Eskamani said.
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