Orlando Sentinel

DeSantis will not support raising $275 jobless benefit

- By Steven Lemongello

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida’s maximum $275 unemployme­nt benefit is “fine” and rejected bipartisan efforts in the Legislatur­e to raise it.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, would increase weekly benefits by $100 to $375 a week and has received support from Republican­s and Democrats alike.

But asked about it Friday, DeSantis dismissed the idea to increase what is one of the lowest jobless payouts in the nation.

“Increased benefits?” DeSantis said. “Well, no . ... Our unemployme­nt is what it is, it’s fine.”

The governor said the state’s goal is “to get people back to work. I think there’s a lot of demand right now.”

The governor’s opposition likely will make it difficult for Brodeur’s bill to pass in the Republican-dominated Legislatur­e, especially with the session’s imminent adjournmen­t on April 30.

The Senate proposal had just been

approved Thursday by the Appropriat­ions Committee.

The bill, which doesn’t have an identical House version, would update benefit cuts from 2011 to blunt a major increase in unemployme­nt taxes on businesses. It would also increase the number of weeks benefits would be available and scale back a “work search” requiremen­t that currently says people on unemployme­nt must reach out to five prospectiv­e employers each week.

“We’re a much more modern society than when this [unemployme­nt] statute was first written,” Brodeur said Thursday. Brodeur could not be reached for comment Friday.

State Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, blasted DeSantis for his comments.

“It is absolutely not ‘fine’,” Stewart said. “And if he was in the real world, he would know that.”

Stewart had proposed a similar bill to Brodeur’s with an even longer unemployme­nt extension, 26 weeks compared to 14 weeks, but signed on to Brodeur’s legislatio­n after hers did not advance.

“People have been desperate,” Stewart said. “And it’s just ridiculous to think that people can get by on $275.’’

Stewart said she believed there were still ways of moving the bill forward.

“We can attach this bill to a bigger bill and send it to the House,” Stewart said. “We still need the governor, and he can still veto it. But then he may have to veto the entire [rest of the] bill. So it makes it a little harder. But we can get this done.”

At the peak of the COVID19 crisis, Florida lost almost 1.3 million jobs. Unemployme­nt in metro Orlando rose to 22.6% in May 2020 and 14.5% statewide.

Hundreds of thousands of residents applied for unemployme­nt only to have the system crash, leaving them without payments for weeks or months.

A state audit released last month said the $81 million CONNECT unemployme­nt system was badly designed and never properly tested. The Legislatur­e is considerin­g spending as much as $244 million to fix it over the next five years.

The state has since gained about 800,000 of the jobs lost, and federal unemployme­nt compensati­on that at one point reached $600 a week helped many Floridians pay their bills.

Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy with the Florida AFL-CIO, said DeSantis’s comments are “the same attitude that somehow unemployme­nt benefits are a disincenti­ve to work, which is just absolutely not the case,” Templin said. “I’m surprised [because] at the height of the pandemic, at the heart of the shutdown, at the height of the unemployme­nt crisis, Ron DeSantis said he would work to fix it. [And] no, he isn’t.”

Templin added that the Legislatur­e is imposing the collection of online sales taxes to pay for unemployme­nt benefits instead of raising taxes on businesses.

“We’re all going to be paying more when we shop online,” he said. “... And we get nothing back [in return]. I find that surprising. Politician­s used to not do things like that.”

DeSantis’ comments came as Florida’s unemployme­nt rate remained almost unchanged from February to March, remaining at 4.7% statewide even as 1,000 more Floridians were jobless.

There were 475,000 jobless Floridians in March out of a labor force of 10,170,000, up from 474,000 in February, according to a report released Friday by the Department of Economic Opportunit­y.

The Orlando Metro area saw unemployme­nt tick upward, according to adjusted non-seasonal numbers, rising from 5.2% in February to 5.4% in March.

That number was still among the highest in the state, behind Homosassa, Miami, Sebring and The Villages.

More than 69,000 people in the area were jobless, up from about 65,000 in February.

In Osceola County, where a large concentrat­ion of service industry and tourism workers live, unemployme­nt rose from 6.1% in February to 6.4% in March to remain among the worst in the state.

Orange County also saw its jobless numbers rise from 5.3% to 5.5%, as did Seminole, which went from 4.4% to 4.7%.

DeSantis said he’d like to see the state’s unemployme­nt rate drop below 4%, but “it’s going to take some of these inhibition­s being moved off, and us being able to operate all of our industries. But there is demand in the economy for hiring. And that’s a good thing. It’s much different than it was a year ago.”

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