Next un­em­ploy­ment cri­sis

Florid­i­ans brace for pos­si­bil­ity ben­e­fits will run out be­fore econ­omy re­vives

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Gray Rohrer

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.”

ALLEN EYESTONE/PALM BEACH POST/TNS

Reem­ploy­ment as­sis­tance ap­pli­ca­tions lie in boxes out­side the front door of the Palm Beach County Li­brary’s Welling­ton branch.

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