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Despite Worker Pleas, Florida Ends Federal Jobless Aid

Gov. Ron DeSantis has decided to end the federal unemployment benefits program more than five weeks early to encourage hiring. The state’s jobless pay is $275 per week, or $6.87 per hour, one of the lowest rates in the country.

(TNS) — This Saturday, out-of-work Floridians will no longer be able to collect federal unemployment checks, after Gov. Ron DeSantis decided to cut off the benefits early in an effort to help businesses start hiring again.

Florida is one of 26 states, most of which are led by Republican governors, that opted to stop participating in the federal unemployment program months ahead of its Sept. 6 expiration date.

For Floridians who manage to get through the Department of Economic Opportunity’s CONNECT website, that means the most they’ll be able to collect is $275 per week in state benefits, which equates to about $6.87 per hour and is among the lowest payouts in the country. Recently, DeSantis also reinstated the requirement for people to apply to five jobs per week to stay on unemployment, as well as severing ties with the remaining call centers that had been fielding calls from claimants.

“We reinstituted the job search requirement and now discontinued the added federal money, and the reason is simple: we’ve got almost a half a million job openings in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said last month at a press conference in Miami.

In total, The Century Foundation, a progressive, independent think tank that researches public policy, says that 116,304 Floridians will lose out on the additional benefits and the state will sacrifice over $418 million in federal funding that would otherwise be spent on the local economy. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that Florida had received 6,792 new unemployment claims, and countless applicants say they are still owed money because of problems with the CONNECT system.

But so far, DeSantis hasn’t backed down.

Business industry groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Florida Retail Federation and Associated Industries of Florida all supported the decision, arguing that giving laid-off workers higher benefits was discouraging them from returning to work. However, labor groups that represent Florida’s tourism and service industry workforce have called that a “disproven talking point” and said some workers have decided not to return to jobs that pay low wages and don’t offer benefits.

“We are being told we are having a hiring crisis because people would rather stay home making less than minimum wage. And that is just not true,” Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy with the Florida AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions across the state, said during a Zoom news conference on Thursday.

Templin pointed to the strict eligibility rules that were put in place back in 2011 and persistent technical glitches with CONNECT that kept many Floridians who lost jobs to the pandemic from ever collecting state benefits. For instance, many part-time, self-employed and contracted workers, as well as gig employees working for companies like Uber and DoorDash, did not qualify for the state’s programs and solely relied on the federal programs Congress set up after the pandemic began, which at first provided $600 weekly payments. Those eligibility rules were put in place under Gov. Rick Scott at the behest of industry lobbyists looking to lower unemployment taxes for corporations.

“First, we have to remind everyone, most workers who found themselves without a job in the tumultuous past 14 months never saw a dime in state benefits. Period. Second, of those Floridians who did qualify for any benefits at all, only a fraction received our paltry weekly maximum benefit amount of $275,” Templin said, citing previous studies from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that’s found only 10 percent of unemployed Floridians usually receive unemployment checks from the state.

On Thursday, Florida AFL-CIO delivered a petition to the governor’s office urging him to reverse course. So far, it’s collected about 7,000 signatures online.

“Participation in this program costs the state of Florida nothing and in fact generates hundreds of millions of dollars that are spent at local businesses,” the petition reads. “Ending the program in our state simply kicks people when they are down to score political points with well-connected employers who want to continue paying poverty wages with no benefits,”

Templin said the group is also exploring the possibility of suing DeSantis to block his decision to withdraw from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, known as FPUC, that provides the $300 payments.

In Indiana, there’s been a similar effort from the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis and Indiana Legal Services which sued Gov. Eric Holcomb after he also pulled the state from the federal program early. The lawsuit represents five plaintiffs who said they haven’t been able to go back to work because of health conditions that put them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 or who have young children at home and no child care available.

Mark Templin, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, sees the situation very differently, though. Two weeks ago, the Chamber had reported that there were 512,900 available jobs but only 487,000 people looking for work. Wilson said hospitality workers especially are in demand right now because of their customer service skills. And for people looking to change careers, CareerSource Center has been providing training.

He said during the throes of the pandemic it was the right move to increase benefits. But now that the economy is recovering, he said it makes sense to do away with them.

“We have plenty of jobs open and plenty of ways for people to get training,” Wilson said. “It was the right time to incentivize work instead of incentivizing not working.”

But a recent analysis from the job site Indeed found that states that ended federal benefits early haven’t necessarily seen a surge in job applicants. According to the report released this week, in Alaska, Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri, which ended the program on June 12, job searches are about 4 percent below the national average. And in the eight states that ended benefits on June 19 — Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming — job search activity is about 1 percent lower.

“It is unclear why search activity is below the baseline in states where federal unemployment insurance benefits have ended,” the report says. “If overly generous federal UI benefits were holding back job seekers, then we would expect search activity to increase ..., in states where those benefits have ended.”

Paul Cox, president of the Local 631 chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, which represents about 3,000 people in Orlando who work behind the scenes at the city’s entertainment venues, theaters and theme parks, called it “sick and sad” that DeSantis is peddling a narrative that his members would rather collect unemployment than work.

“This is a made-up reason for this crisis,” he said.

©2021 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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