TALLAHASSEE — With more than 3.48 million Florida unemployment applications filed since mid-March, a verbal battle has reemerged over the state’s troubled jobless system after Gov. Ron DeSantis said it was designed with “pointless roadblocks.”
The system was developed under former Gov. Rick Scott, who responded this week by advising DeSantis to “quit blaming others.”
The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday reported an estimated 73,955 first-time jobless claims were filed in Florida as part of 1.186 million new claims nationally during the week that ended Aug. 1.
The national total represented the 20th consecutive week with more than 1 million new claims, but it was down from 1.4 million claims in each of the prior two weeks.
Florida’s figure was down from 91,462 claims during the week that ended July 25 and was well below claims from April, when much of the state was shut down to try to control the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. DeSantis began efforts May 4 to reopen businesses.
While Florida showed improvement last week, only California had more first-time claims, with an estimated 228,530. New York, with 73,740 new claims, and Georgia, with 72,695 claims, were just behind Florida for the week.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has distributed $13 billion in state and federal assistance to 1.8 million unemployment claimants. The bulk of the money came from a $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit, which expired at the end of July.
Congress and the Trump administration continue to negotiate another round of economic stimulus, with Democrats seeking to extend the $600 weekly unemployment payments. Republicans have moved to cut the figure to $200 or to base payments on a percentage of people’s prior incomes.
Florida’s jobless benefits are available for 12 weeks and max out at $275 a week.
Florida Senate Democrats, who have repeatedly pushed for a special session to address the economy and the unemployment system, noted Wednesday that about 1.45 million Floridians continued to wait for payments.
Part of the controversy about Florida’s unemployment program has centered on the troubled CONNECT online system, which was created during Scott’s tenure as governor. The system could not handle the massive number of unemployment claims that began pouring in after the pandemic hit the state in March.
In an interview Monday with Miami television reporter Jim DeFede, DeSantis said he believes the “animating philosophy” in putting the CONNECT system together was to discourage people seeking jobless benefits.
“I mean having studied how it was internally constructed,” DeSantis said, “I think the goal was for whoever designed, it was, ‘Let’s put as many kind of pointless roadblocks along the way, so people just say, oh, the hell with it, I’m not going to do that.’ And, you know, for me, let’s decide on what the benefit is and let’s get it out as efficiently as possible. You know, we shouldn’t necessarily do these roadblocks to do it. So, we have cleared a lot of those.”
DeSantis’ comment was similar to other statements he made in April and May before directing the state’s inspector general to conduct a review of the system, which cost nearly $78 million and started operating in 2013.
During the spring, DeSantis referred to the system as a “jalopy,” a “clunker,” and “designed with all these different things, basically to fail.”
When DeFede told DeSantis the current system was designed under Scott, DeSantis didn’t put the blame at the feet of his fellow Republican, before adding, “It was definitely done in a way to lead to the least number of claims being paid out.”
Asked Wednesday on Fox Business News about DeSantis’ “pointless roadblocks” comment, Scott said he “fixed problems” and leaders should “quit blaming others.”
“It’s a tough time to be governor,” Scott, now a U.S. senator, said. “Some people are leaders. Some people take responsibility. Some people solve problems. And some people blame others.”
DeSantis on Thursday responded to Scott’s critique by saying his administration — in the middle of economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus — had to fix a system “that was not ready for primetime.”
“That was a big effort,” DeSantis said while at the University of North Florida for an event about high-school sports. “We had to do huge amounts of personnel, all these different servers. And so, the question is, if you’re going to spend $77 million for something, you know, what are the results? And this obviously wasn’t a good result for Florida taxpayer.”
Democrats have quickly sought to capitalize on the “roadblocks” comment.
“Unemployment isn’t extra spending money, it’s a lifeline to keep struggling Floridians afloat,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in an email fundraising request on Wednesday.