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‘Willful neglect’: Florida’s unemployment system gets hearing in Washington

A Democratic state senator testified that problems were no secret, with “audit after audit,” and that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis knew about the issues because one of the audits was “on the governor’s desk” when he came into office.

A Miami state senator testifying before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday highlighted the shortcomings of Florida’s unemployment system to federal lawmakers.

Democratic state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez told senators that Florida’s unemployment system, which was implemented by Republican Sen. Rick Scott when he was governor of Florida, “suffered from willful neglect for a long time.”

He said the problems were no secret, with “audit after audit,” and that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis knew about the issues because one of the audits was “on the governor’s desk” when he came into office.

“We recently learned that on his way into office, the governor was warned of the strategic threat...the [Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s system] posed to Florida,” Rodríguez told the committee in response to questions from Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden.

Rodríguez’s testimony came a day after Senate Democrats, led by Wyden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, wrote a letter saying they wanted the Labor Department to investigate Florida’s failure to process and pay out unemployment claims.

During the four-hour hearing Tuesday, senators from both parties fought with each other, posing questions to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia.

Republicans argued that the additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits, part of the federal government’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that became law in March, is discouraging people from re-entering the workforce as states begin to reopen.

Democrats argued that it was impossible to set up a system that pegged unemployment benefits to a person’s income before they were unemployed due to the pandemic, and complained that the Labor Department isn’t seriously investigating workplace safety complaints related to the coronavirus.

Scalia mostly evaded questions from Democrats. He argued that it’s not necessary to continue the $600-a-week benefits past their current expiration at the end of July. The benefits are also granted to gig workers and independent contractors who traditionally cannot apply for unemployment.

Democrats want to keep the expanded benefits through the end of 2020.

“The $600 benefit was to help Americans in a closing economy,” Scalia said. “The best thing for workers is work, not unemployment.”

But Rodríguez said Florida’s unemployment system, which delayed payments for weeks after it failed due to technical issues and increased demand, still isn’t paying out the majority of the federal dollars owed to unemployed Floridians who newly qualified for the temporary benefits.

“Our rate of bringing people on to the program when they are ineligible for traditional unemployment are very low, 28 percent,” Rodríguez said. “The state has been awarding the minimum benefit level as a default and created an extremely cumbersome system for people who are 1099 [gig] workers to be able to establish how much they’re owed. That rate is far below most states. We’re leaving about three dollars in Washington for every dollar we draw down.”

The letter from Schumer and others to Labor Department Inspector General Scott Dahl asked the federal agency to investigate Florida’s problems and look at whether state officials have been properly distributing federal aid for the coronavirus crisis.

“While all states have seen record increases in the number of its residents applying for unemployment,” the letter said, “the state of Florida’s performance has proved uniquely poor in its abject inability to assist millions of Florida residents who have applied for and continue to await unemployment benefits.”

DeSantis dismissed calls for a federal investigation as “partisan politics.” DeSantis’ state-based investigation, run by Florida’s inspector general, is mostly focused on the actions of former Florida Govs. Charlie Crist and Scott, while Senate Democrats want to examine the unemployment system’s failures in the last three months.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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