Gov. Charlie Crist signs order to extend benefits to long-term unemployed

Good news for about 100,000 long-term jobless in Florida: They'll be able to join the rest of the country in receiving the extended unemployment benefits reinstated by Congress this week.

Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday issued an executive order that effectively allows unemployed Floridians who have exhausted 79 weeks of unemployment benefits to be eligible for up to 20 more weeks under the federal extended benefits program.

Because of an earlier deadline set by the state Legislature — that Floridians had to be eligible for extended benefits by June 5 to qualify — that group was at risk of being frozen out of the reinstatement.

The Legislature did not address the unemployment deadline issue during a special session this week and is not scheduled to come back for its regular session until September. Crist said that was too long for those relying on weekly payments to wait.

"Unemployed Floridians are struggling in this challenging economic climate, trying to figure out how to pay their bills and support their families," Crist said in a statement.

Jeremy Wiseman, a 28-year-old St. Petersburg resident who was transitioning to extended benefits when the program shut down, said the news "made my day."

Wiseman lost his job as a machine operator making medical supplies in late 2008. In the months since, his car was repossessed and he's been unable to afford going back to school to get trained in another field. Unemployment benefits have been a financial lifeline as his job search went on.

"I feel like a big, giant weight has been lifted off my shoulders," he said in an e-mail. "It helps in a big way. The bills can get caught up without interruption now."

Republicans in Congress and in the Florida Legislature had opposed continuing the extended unemployment benefits without identifying budget cuts to pay for it. Moreover, there was discussion in Tallahassee about whether Crist could act without legislative approval.

But Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said after reviewing the federal bill and talking with the Labor Department, the governor felt he had authority to issue the executive order.

Since the extension expired June 5, 56,714 Floridians have exhausted their 79 weeks of coverage and needed state action to get the additional 20 weeks offered in the extended benefits program. An additional 47,000 people had a pending extended benefit balance that Crist's executive order now allows them to recoup.

Some of them will receive lump sum payments, depending upon the status of their claims.

Under the new federal guidelines, Floridians who qualify for the 20 weeks of extended benefits could resume receiving those benefits through Dec. 4. As more and more Florida residents exhaust their first 79 weeks of benefits, up to 250,000 long-term unemployed workers could eventually qualify for the 20-week extension, according to the state.

During the congressional delay, about 35,000 Floridians a week were falling off unemployment because they couldn't advance to the next benefit level, or tier.

That includes not just those going into extended benefits but also those entering four different tiers of unemployment insurance between 26 weeks and 79 weeks, a period known as the emergency unemployment compensation program.

The total affected since the deadlock began was about 250,000 people in Florida and roughly 2.5 million nationally.

The new federal law also extends the deadline for establishing eligibility in the emergency unemployment compensation program by about six months and extends the phase-out date for the program to April 30, 2011. The later phaseout will help nearly 900,000 Floridians, the Agency for Workforce Innovation estimated.

"We anticipate that, within two weeks of receiving guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor … we will begin issuing payments," director Cynthia Lorenzo said.

Beneficiaries who may be eligible for either the federal emergency unemployment compensation program or the extended benefits program will be notified by mail, the agency said. Those who believe they may be eligible may begin certifying for benefits within the next two weeks at www.floridajobs.org or by calling (800) 204-2418.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.

Gov. Charlie Crist signs order to extend benefits to long-term unemployed 07/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 24, 2010 12:21am]

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