Sunday, December 17, 2017
Business

Report: Florida hit hard by cutoff in federal unemployment benefits

This month's cutoff of federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless is hitting Florida particularly hard, according to an academic report released Monday.

Despite a dramatic drop in its unemployment rate, Florida remains an epicenter for the long-term unemployed seeking work for more than six months, notes the report from Florida International University's Center for Labor Research and Studies. Moreover, the cutoff in emergency federal benefits comes as Florida itself cuts back aid.

Beginning this month, Florida's unemployment benefits decreased from 19 weeks to 16 weeks under a formula tied to its unemployment rate. It's one of just seven states that offer fewer than 26 weeks of coverage. The average benefit is less than $232 a week and the maximum is $275, also lower than most other states.

"As long as Florida's economy continues to lag in creating good jobs, policymakers need to be pro-active and not reactive when it comes to unemployment compensation," the report concluded.

"Florida's economy and its workers have a lot to lose."

Emergency extended federal benefits, which kick in after regular state unemployment compensation is exhausted, were enacted by Congress in June 2008. They've been extended several times during the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Starting Dec. 28, 1.3 million Americans — including 73,000 Floridians — stopped receiving federal unemployment compensation after Congress' budget failed to extend the program. At the time, the program was providing an additional 14 weeks of benefits.

Florida's average duration of unemployment was highest in the country in 2011 and 2012, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2012, the average duration of unemployment in Florida was 44 weeks compared with the 34-week U.S. average.

Full-year comparisons for 2013 are not yet available.

But between January and October last year, Florida was still highest with an average unemployment duration of about 48 weeks, said Ali Bustamante, author of the FIU report.

Florida, along with New Jersey and the District of Columbia, remains one of the few places where long-term jobless still make up more than 45 percent of the unemployed, according to estimates from congressional Democrats.

On its face, Florida's entrenched problem with long-term joblessness seems to contradict other indicators showing the state economy's continuing improvement. For instance, Florida's unemployment rate over the past year has dropped from 8 percent to 6.4 percent. However, economists believe much of the fall is tied to exasperated job seekers who have given up their search and, therefore, are no longer counted in unemployment statistics.

Another factor: A problem-plagued makeover to the website used to process unemployment benefits has made it difficult for many jobless to even apply.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has blamed its website design contractor for technical problems, which it acknowledges has hampered thousands of Floridians trying to file claims.

If federal benefits are not extended at any point this year, an estimated 4.9 million nationwide — 260,400 in Florida alone — will be affected by lost benefits, according to government data.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.

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