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A new low: Florida offers the fewest weeks of jobless benefits

 
Published Jan. 23, 2015

Barring a surprising setback, Florida Gov. Rick Scott today will proclaim that the state's economy closed 2014 in its strongest state in nearly seven years thanks to broad-based job creation pushing down the unemployment rate.

But job seekers bypassed by the recovery aren't celebrating, given another less-trumpeted statistic. Florida has just replaced North Carolina as the state offering the fewest weeks of unemployment benefits in the country.

Based on a formula tied to its declining unemployment rate, Florida cut back its maximum unemployment benefits from 16 weeks to 14 weeks effective Jan. 15. North Carolina, which had provided 14 weeks of benefits in the second half of 2014, bumped its payout up to 15 weeks.

Workers in most states are eligible to receive up to 26 weeks of benefits from their state-funded unemployment compensation programs.

Florida is one of just eight states providing fewer weeks, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Moreover, Florida currently offers a maximum weekly payout of $275, also among the lowest in the country.

Backers of cuts in unemployment benefits — particularly when the federal government was funding additional months of emergency payments after the state benefits expired — say that longer payouts provide a disincentive to finding a job.

Rebecca Dixon, policy analyst at the worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project, or NELP, maintains the opposite is true, that the funds provide an important lifeline.

"If you don't provide any kind of income support, it makes it very hard for people to search for work," she said. "It's hard to concentrate on submitting resumes and going to interviews when you're worried about being evicted or keeping the electricity on."

She questioned tying the number of weeks of benefits to a single statewide unemployment rate that doesn't reflect higher unemployment in certain industries or counties.

Florida's policymakers are "shooting themselves in the foot," Dixon added, if they think 14 weeks of aid is sufficient when it takes 33 weeks on average for an unemployed worker to find a new job.

"In Florida, (with) only 14 weeks, you're going to run out no matter how diligently you search," she said.

Contact Jeff Harrington at jharrington@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3434.