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Senators move to raise Florida’s weekly unemployment benefits to $375

The bill was lawmakers’ first substantive debate about how to improve the state’s unemployment system.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida unemployed workers are still trying to apply for and receive unemployment benefits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida unemployed workers are still trying to apply for and receive unemployment benefits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Mar. 29
Updated Mar. 29

TALLAHASSEE — A year after Florida’s unemployment system was wrecked by a crush of pandemic-related claims, lawmakers took the first step toward expanding benefits.

Under a bill (Senate Bill 1906) that passed its first committee on Thursday, the state’s maximum weekly unemployment benefits would increase by $100, to $375. The minimum weekly benefits would increase from $32 to $100.

And the state’s strict work search requirements to keep those benefits would be reduced from five different job applications per week to three.

The bill doesn’t do much else — at least not yet.

Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said his bill was a “good starting point” for a larger debate among lawmakers on ways to fix an unemployment system that Gov. Ron DeSantis and others said was “designed to fail” Floridians during the pandemic.

That starting point comes relatively late in the legislative session, though.

Although state lawmakers have been meeting since January, Monday’s bill was the first to be heard that makes substantive changes to the unemployment system. The bill still has to pass two more Senate committees, the Senate floor, then pass the House before it could make it to DeSantis’ desk for approval. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has already said he does not support raising the weekly benefit amounts.

And state lawmakers are still waiting on a critical analysis by state economists about what the changes would do to the state’s unemployment trust fund, the pot of money that goes to pay benefits.

“We’re halfway through session, and we’re still waiting on economists to get us answers on these things?” asked Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach.

Overhauling the state’s unemployment system, which is one of the stingiest in the nation and was the second slowest to pay out claims last year, means reversing a few policies championed by business groups and Gov. Rick Scott a decade ago.

In an effort to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund, which was depleted from people who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, Scott and lawmakers made it harder for Floridians to receive benefits.

The strategy worked. The unemployment trust fund was slowly replenished by businesses, which pay some of the lowest unemployment insurance rates in the country, and the percentage of jobless Floridians receiving benefits plummeted from 22 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2015, the lowest in the nation that year, federal data shows.

When the pandemic hit last year, DeSantis waived a number of those Scott-era changes, including some he said were “perverse” incentives to keep people from receiving benefits.

Brodeur’s idea to limit the state’s requirement of five job searches per week to just three limits one of those Scott-era policies.

Democratic senators were underwhelmed by Brodeur’s bill.

“Your bill is not bad. It’s not great. It doesn’t go far enough,” said Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, the lone senator to vote against it.

Raising the benefits to $375 was arbitrary, Brodeur admitted. He chose it because it was close to the national average for state benefits, not because it was based on an “exhaustive” economic study, he said.

“We didn’t have that, so we shot from the hip,” he said.

Pizzo had another idea: Why not tie the maximum weekly benefit amount to the unemployment rate? That would avoid requiring lawmakers to come back in future years to set a higher amount — if they ever addressed it again. The state’s maximum of $275 per week, or $6.87 per hour, hasn’t changed since 1998.

The state’s minimum wage is set to go to $10 per hour, or $400 per week, this year, and $15 per hour, or $600 per week, in 2026.

“I don’t want to come back to this,” Pizzo said. “Let’s just set it and forget it.”

Brodeur said he was open to the idea, but that he needed to see what the impact would be on the state’s unemployment trust fund. State economists will examine the bill now that it’s passed its first committee, he said.

Democrats offered several amendments that were rejected by Republican senators on Monday, including some that would have allowed poorer Floridians to qualify for benefits.

Another amendment would have forbidden Florida from denying state benefits to pregnant women, people without transportation, people caring for children and those who are sick. Florida has been denying state benefits to those groups on the basis they were not “able and available” to work during the pandemic, the Times/Herald revealed last week.

Brodeur said he thought the proposal might clash with federal law, but he wasn’t sure. Other states, including Texas and Michigan, were able to waive some of those requirements during the pandemic, however.

“Florida got a black eye on this one,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami. “Many, especially women, were tremendously affected by this.”

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