5 ways lawmakers can fix Florida’s unemployment system — besides CONNECT

They could raise the maximum benefit amount. Or find out why CONNECT is rejecting so many people.
Hillsborough County Library Service employee Stephen Duran wears a mask and gloves to protect himself from the coronavirus outbreak as he hands out unemployment paperwork to residents Tuesday, April 14, 2020, at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Public Library in Tampa.
Hillsborough County Library Service employee Stephen Duran wears a mask and gloves to protect himself from the coronavirus outbreak as he hands out unemployment paperwork to residents Tuesday, April 14, 2020, at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Public Library in Tampa. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Mar. 13, 2021|Updated Mar. 13, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — During the last year, legislators’ offices were flooded with calls from desperate Floridians looking for help with their unemployment claims, leading to what is likely the greatest constituent outreach effort in the Legislature’s history.

Many lawmakers vowed to fix the system when they returned to Tallahassee.

Two weeks into the annual 60-day session, Democrats have proposed a variety of bills to fix unemployment, but none of them have received a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Some Republicans have vowed fixes to the system that go beyond paying up to $244 million to fix the state’s crippled online unemployment website, known as CONNECT. But so far, none have had a hearing.

With six weeks left in this year’s legislative session, here are five ways to improve the system —besides fixing CONNECT — and whether any have a chance of passing:

1. Raise the weekly benefit amounts — and the number of weeks

By now it’s no secret: Florida’s $275 maximum weekly benefits are among the lowest in the nation.

During good times, recipients are limited to 12 weeks of payments — among the briefest in the nation.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is in favor of raising the benefit amounts. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, is not. Both chambers need to pass the same bill for it to reach Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for approval.

In the Senate, Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, has a bill (Senate Bill 1906) that would raise the minimum benefits from $32 to $100, and maximum benefits from $275 to $375. Brodeur said the increase was a simple way to get it close to the pre-pandemic national average for weekly benefits.

His bill has yet to get a hearing. It does not yet have a companion bill in the House. But his measure is the likeliest to go far during session, and he said he expects it to be heard.

“People are hurting right now, so let’s do something now,” Brodeur said.

2. Find out why so many are rejected for unemployment

Was CONNECT designed to fail? That’s the $77 million question, and there’s still no answer.

What is known is that the vast majority of unemployed Floridians don’t receive benefits. Between 2015 and 2019, just 11 percent of jobless Floridians got benefits, the second-worst of any state, federal data shows. (The national average was 27 percent.)

But the real problem might be embedded within CONNECT. And it’s not software glitches, but the state’s strict fraud-fighting system.

In an attempt to prevent unemployment fraud — or limit eligibility — the state has tuned its system to reject a large number of applicants who might otherwise be qualified. The state’s chief inspector general wrote earlier this month that the high 68 percent rate of rejections prior to the pandemic was from, in part, “the normal functioning of the system’s fraud controls.”

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Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said he suspects the system rejected people for minuscule problems, such as if their driver’s license included a middle initial, but their application did not, or if the same IP address (a computer’s unique identity) was used to file multiple claims.

But the state’s inspector general report doesn’t delve into the issue, and neither does an expensive third-party audit of CONNECT the state paid for last year.

Republican lawmakers have vowed more hearings and questions about what went wrong with CONNECT, which could provide another opportunity to delve into its fraud system.

3. Eliminate ‘perverse’ incentives

When the pandemic struck last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis was forced to re-evaluate a number of Rick Scott-era policies dealing with unemployment.

One of those is a rule that encouraged businesses to keep people on their payrolls at drastically reduced rates so the employees wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. (Businesses have to pay higher unemployment insurance rates to the state if they have higher numbers of layoffs.)

DeSantis waived that rule during the pandemic, calling it a “perverse incentive.”

Lawmakers could repeal the rule, but they haven’t addressed it.

4. Allow benefits to start the date you lose your job

Under state law, unemployment benefits don’t start until you apply for them. And even then, you still have to wait a week before receiving them, an obstacle for applicants that dates back to when unemployment claims were handled manually, according to the Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

When CONNECT went down, Floridians had no way to apply for benefits. That meant they stood to lose valuable months of jobless checks simply because they couldn’t apply.

DeSantis waived the application requirement last year. Lawmakers could make it permanent.

5. Change the state’s reporting requirements

When the Great Recession hit, Florida’s unemployment trust fund, the pot of money that pays claims, depleted.

To fill it back up, Scott and GOP lawmakers revamped the unemployment system to make it much harder to receive claims. The less money going out, the easier it is to fill it up.

The new laws included stringent reporting requirements for people on unemployment. They had to report five job searches per week, and jump back into the system every two weeks to claim their benefits.

Requiring Floridians to check back in with CONNECT every two weeks was a disaster, since it was already overburdened by people trying to file initial claims. And since the economy was in a free fall, no one could report their five job searches.

So DeSantis waived both during the pandemic. So far, Republicans haven’t eyed making changes, although two bills (Senate Bill 1948 and the identical House Bill 1463) make a small tweak to the weekly reporting requirements: those who are jobless wouldn’t have to report the phone number of the business for each job search.

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