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Democrats push to overhaul Florida’s unemployment system

The proposal would increase benefits to $500 per week and impose an important deadline on the state’s jobless agency.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020 during his State of the State address in Tallahassee.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020 during his State of the State address in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020
Updated Oct. 8, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Democratic lawmakers on Thursday announced they will propose a major overhaul to the state’s broken unemployment system that includes nearly doubling weekly benefits and tripling the number of weeks someone could receive those benefits.

Maximum weekly benefits would rise to $500 per week, instead of the current $275. Minimum weekly benefits would rise to $100, from the current $32. And self-employed workers would, for the first time, be eligible for state benefits.

The proposed bill, still in draft form, also addresses some of the problems that have frustrated millions of Floridians who have filed for unemployment after losing their jobs to the pandemic this year.

It would impose a three-week deadline, from the moment someone files for unemployment, for the state’s jobless agency to determine whether someone is eligible for benefits. Many Floridians this year have waited three months or longer for a determination.

Related: How much has Florida overpaid in unemployment benefits? It won’t say.

It would also create an ombudsman’s office within the Department of Economic Opportunity to field complaints and suggest to the state officials and lawmakers ways for the system to improve.

And it would allow Floridians to receive benefits from the day they lost their job, rather than the day they applied for benefits. Gov. Ron DeSantis temporarily changed this when the state’s unemployment website, CONNECT, went down in mid-March, preventing Floridians from applying. Democrats proposed making the change permanent.

Democratic lawmakers said Thursday that the ideas were relatively modest and would make Florida’s unemployment system comparable to those in other states. Currently, Florida’s benefits are among the worst in the nation.

“Very few of these ideas are new,” said Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami.

The proposed bill is likely to be one of many unemployment system reforms pitched by lawmakers in the months leading up to the next legislative session, scheduled to begin in March. Both Democratic and Republican leaders have vowed changes to the system after this year’s unemployment fiasco, which frustrated millions of Floridians, many of whom called their local lawmakers for help.

Related: As Florida’s jobless website crashed, state lawmakers scrambled to help

Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, however, and whatever they propose is likely to become law. They have not yet unveiled a plan, but several have said they want to fix the unemployment system. Outgoing Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said last month that he thought the weekly benefit amounts should be higher.

“We want bipartisan support,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “These are common-sense solutions.”

The Democratic plan, if somehow approved by a Republican majority, would reverse some long-ago actions by Gov. Rick Scott and GOP lawmakers, who imposed a series of reforms starting in 2011 that made it harder to file and receive unemployment benefits. Specifically:

  • Floridians would be allowed to file for benefits in other ways besides filing online, which is difficult for those with poor access to the internet. Scott and GOP lawmakers required everyone to go through CONNECT. When CONNECT melted down this year, DeSantis lifted that restriction and allowed people to file paper applications.
  • Floridians could receive up to 26 weeks of unemployment. Scott changed the law to make the number of eligible weeks based on the unemployment rate. Currently, that time period lasts for 12 weeks, the shortest in the nation.
  • It would broaden the circumstances in which someone would be eligible for benefits. People who leave their job to care for a sick family member or lose their job because they have to relocate for their spouse’s job would be eligible for unemployment benefits. So would people who leave their job because their abusive partner knows where they work.