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‘What’s right and decent’: Florida Senate approves higher unemployment benefits

Senators voted 40-0 on Thursday to raise the state’s unemployment benefits by $100, defying Gov. Ron DeSantis and setting up a showdown with the Florida House.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby speaks during Opening Day at the Capitol Tuesday, March 2, 2021 in Tallahassee.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby speaks during Opening Day at the Capitol Tuesday, March 2, 2021 in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Apr. 22
Updated Apr. 22

TALLAHASSEE — When millions of Floridians were desperate to receive unemployment benefits from the state’s broken jobless agency last year, they turned to their lawmakers for help.

Legislators and their staff both parties fielded tens of thousands of calls from frustrated, scared and sometimes suicidal constituents who lost their jobs from the pandemic, leading to what is likely the greatest constituent outreach effort in the Legislature’s history.

Now, 13 months after the pandemic, lawmakers are split about what to do about it.

Senators voted 40-0 on Thursday to raise the state’s unemployment benefits by $100, defying Gov. Ron DeSantis and setting up a surprisingly contentious fight with their colleagues in the House in the final week of this year’s legislative session.

Although senators stood and applauded after the vote, their debate was brief — and desperate.

“Today, I’m very proud to be a member of the Senate,” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami. “We’re doing what’s right and decent.”

But he pleaded with senators to pressure their House counterparts for support.

“Whatever political will, whatever influence, whatever self-respect you have that you can invoke and impress upon our House colleagues, please do,” he said.

Although Florida’s unemployment benefits top out at just $275 per week — among the very lowest in the nation — both DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, have come out against increasing them.

Related: Increase unemployment benefits? ‘No,’ DeSantis says

The House hasn’t heard a single bill to increase benefits this session, and Republican House members voted down a bill amendment this week that would have raised the benefits by $100.

“What our focus is on in the House is about getting people back to work,” Sprowls said following the Senate vote. He said his focus is on an overhaul of the state’s workforce program he’s proposing this session.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said he wanted to make good on his vow to improve the system, but he admitted its prospects for passing were bleak.

“I do not believe the unemployment issue is off the table completely yet,” Simpson said Wednesday.

State lawmakers seemed determined to take action on Florida’s broken unemployment system last year, when their offices were flooded with calls from their constituents looking for help filing claims.

Lawmakers from both parties were furious with the Department of Economic Opportunity, whose unemployment website, known as CONNECT, failed immediately in March and caused Floridians to wait months to receive benefits.

They also cast a critical eye on policies passed by former Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 that made it harder to receive benefits and lowered the amount of weeks Floridians could qualify for benefits.

Senate Bill 1906, passed Thursday, would increase the weekly benefits for the first time since 1998. Maximum benefits would go up by $100, to $375, and minimum benefits would go from $32 to $100.

The bill would also increase the amount of weeks someone could receive benefits by two weeks. It also reverses other Scott policies from 2011.

The bill sponsor, Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, gave a simple reason for voting for it.

“This bill is just an effort to raise levels to meet the needs of Floridians,” he said. “In the last decade, the cost of living has risen, the price of housing has exploded, and we need to respond.”

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