Next unemployment crisis
Floridians brace for possibility benefits will run out before economy revives
TALLAHASSEE — Frustrated Floridians seeking unemployment compensation could face a new crisis in the coming months: exhausting their benefits before the state’s tourism-dependent economy bounces back from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need a revamping of the technology, but we also need to look at the payments because I don’t believe it’s adequate,” said state Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando. “We’re feeling the pain and the pressure of people that reach out to us and $275 (per week) is not enough.”
Bracy and state Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, spoke at the Capitol this week after meeting with Jonathan Satter, Department of Management Services secretary. Gov. Ron DeSantis put him in charge of the unemployment system after Ken Lawson, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity was unable to process payments quickly enough in the first weeks of the crisis.
Bracy acknowledged Satter has made progress, with nearly 711,900 claims paid and $1.8 billion in benefits sent out since the crisis hit in mid-March, but he still gets inundated with calls and emails detailing the despair of not being able to get paid.
“This person reached out to me and said they had considered suicide because their situation was so dire — a single parent with two weeks now of unemployment and no response,” Bracy said. “So I decided it was time to come here and stay here until the bulk of people get their unemployment.”
Despite that progress, jobless Floridians face losing those checks by the fall, which could be long before the economy and jobs rebound.
Under a Florida law passed by
Republicans in 2011, the maximum duration of jobless benefits is tied to the unemployment rate. When it’s below 5 percent, benefits are capped at 12 weeks, making the state tied with North Carolina for the shortest duration of benefits among states.
That can grow to 23 weeks if the unemployment rate rises to 10.5% or higher. But the state doesn’t adjust the total benefit weeks until October, so those getting benefits now will only receive 12 weeks of state-paid benefits at most, even as the jobless rate is expected to skyrocket before then.
The federal government has stepped in to help through the CARES Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in March to respond to the pandemic’s economic effects. But the $600 per week in federal benefits runs out July 31.
The CARES Act also provides for an extra 13 weeks of benefits at statelevel amounts.
For most states, which have 26 weeks of benefits, that would allow unemployed workers to receive benefits until the end of the year, but because Florida’s state benefits end at 12 weeks, Sunshine State workers could run out in September.
But with the economy sagging, especially in the tourism sector so central to it, many of the jobs are unlikely to return by then, even as the state continues its phased-in reopening under DeSantis’ plan.
Democratic lawmakers have called for a special session to address the problems with the unemployment system, but Republicans voted them down. Still, they believe DeSantis has the power to extend the maximum benefit weeks on his own through an executive order, as well as increasing the amount of the benefit, which is capped at $275 per week, also among the lowest in the country.
“I think the governor could make all of those choices and orders,” Stewart said. “Because this is an unusual situation so I definitely think he needs to look at that.”
The governor, however, has stated he doesn’t have the authority to disregard the limits on benefits amounts and weeks, which are set in state law.
Democrats note DeSantis has used his additional powers during a state of emergency to waive other aspects of the law in an effort to pay claimants more quickly, such as the oneweek waiting requirement after losing a job before filing a claim.
The most immediate problem, though, remains the thousands of newly unemployed unable to access the system.
Jobless people stymied by the system describe a labyrinthine process filled with computer glitches and a call center that is constantly busy and offers scant help when they’re able to talk to someone.
“There’s been times when I’ve gotten frustrated and wanted to give up but I can’t because I don’t want to be on the street,” said Ivette Cruz, a food service worker from Orlando.
Cruz spoke during a conference call organized by the AFL-CIO, which is gathering petitions to send to DeSantis calling on him to make changes to the unemployment system, including extending the maximum amount of benefit weeks to 26. They’ve submitted 11,000 online petitions so far, organizers said.
Another unemployed worker on the call, Thomas Spellman, a Plant City construction worker, said he applied for the first time on March 22, but was ruled ineligible more than a month later yet wasn’t told the reason. He’s applied two more times since but hasn’t received a check.
“It’s very frustrating you can’t contact anybody,” Spellman said. “The state has failed me, has failed us. The system has failed us and a lot of people are paying for this right now and it’s very aggravating.”
Reemployment assistance applications lie in boxes outside the front door of the Palm Beach County Library’s Wellington branch.