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Florida lawmakers move to expand access and amounts of unemployment benefits

The changes include reversing one of the signature pieces of former Gov. Rick Scott’s unemployment reforms.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Apr. 15
Updated Apr. 15

TALLAHASSEE — A Senate committee Thursday approved a few changes to Florida’s stingy unemployment system including raising the maximum weekly benefits by $100 and reversing several policies championed by former Gov. Rick Scott.

In a rare show of bipartisanship late in a contentious 2021 legislative session, senators from both parties agreed to changes that would increase the number of people eligible for benefits.

Senators also clarified that Florida’s unemployment agency can’t deny claims for women simply for being pregnant, codifying federal requirements in state law.

“This is indeed a banner day,” said Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, the bill sponsor.

The changes still must be approved by the full Senate and the House, where Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, opposes increasing the weekly benefit amounts.

The changes in Senate Bill 1906 include:

  • increasing the minimum weekly benefit amounts by $68, from $32 to $100; and maximum weekly benefit amounts by $100, from $275 to $375, effective July 1
  • increasing, from 12 to 14, the maximum number of weeks that Florida can offer applicants when the unemployment rate is below 5 percent; and from 23 to 25 weeks, the maximum number of weeks for applicants when the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent or higher.
  • expanded access to benefits for farmers and other seasonal workers by allowing state officials to use their most recent quarter of wages when calculating whether they earned enough to qualify for benefits

The changes to the bill overturn one of the hallmarks of Scott’s unemployment reforms passed during his first year as governor in 2011.

Tying the number of benefits weeks to the unemployment rate was part of an effort to make it harder for Floridians to qualify for jobless benefits that Scott signed into law that year. Scott said he wanted to make it harder to receive benefits to encourage people to go back to work in the wake of the Great Recession.

If the unemployment rate was less than 5 percent, Floridians could only receive benefits for 12 weeks, among the worst in the nation. Instead of relying on the current unemployment rate, Scott relied on the unemployment rate from the previous year’s third quarter.

That rigid standard played out harshly for Floridians last year.

When the pandemic hit and Florida’s unemployment rate skyrocketed almost overnight, the state was stuck paying out the minimum 12 weeks of benefits, based on the prior unemployment rate.

Federal benefits passed by Congress filled in the gap until recently, when Florida’s minimum weeks jumped to 15, since last year’s third quarter unemployment rate was higher than the previous year’s.

Senators on Thursday moved to base the number of benefits weeks more on a “real-time” rate — the previous month’s unemployment rate.

The bill would also clarify that the Department of Economic Opportunity can’t deny claims to pregnant women “solely on the basis of pregnancy.” A Times/Herald story last month revealed that the department, in its approach to fighting fraud, was flagging people who were not “able and available” to work, tying up those claims in a lengthy bureaucratic mess.

Even though the state’s economy was shut down, the state was still flagging people who were sick from COVID-19, caring for children at home or pregnant, according to records and former call center workers.

The department said it never denied someone’s claim for not being “able and available” for work for being pregnant, which is prohibited under federal law. It did, however, go back and find “many dozen” pregnant women whose claims were tied up waiting to be reviewed by an adjudicator, the department’s director said last month.

Brodeur said the bill would put the federal mandate in state law.

“Incorporating this provision in state law is going to help quell concerns surrounding this issue,” he said.

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