TALLAHASSEE — When Marc Rooney lost his job as a project coordinator for a tech company in September, he did not have trouble meeting Florida’s strict work search requirements for receiving unemployment.
As required, Rooney reported five places he applied each week. The one week he didn’t do that, he went to a local CareerSource center in Titusville.
Now, still jobless during the pandemic, Rooney struggles to get benefits from the state. If those work search requirements resume, it could make applying even harder.
“I look every single day,” said Rooney, 54. “You can only apply for so many.”
On Thursday, state officials announced Gov. Ron DeSantis waived those requirements for another three weeks, through July 4. DeSantis first suspended the work search requirements on March 20, the week after the state saw an historic rise in unemployment claims. The requirements are normally a “great idea," DeSantis said then, but not during a pandemic that has shutdown the economy.
“In this environment, we’d rather just get the relief to people,” he said March 20.
Since then, DeSantis had to extend the waiver four times. Each time, he did so as the deadline loomed, forcing many applicants to fear they’d soon lose eligibility and aggravating some lawmakers. Once when DeSantis extended it, the waiver was set to expire the next day. This week’s extension came two days before the deadline.
Lawmakers like Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, want the work search requirements to be waived at least until August. That’s when the federal unemployment benefits expire.
“If Congress is creating the payments to last that long, then people need it for at least that long,” Eskamani said.
Imposing work search requirements, which will require more Floridians to use the state’s already-overwhelmed unemployed website, could force hundreds of thousands of people to lose benefits — without gaining a job.
Under changes signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, unemployed Floridians had to report five new jobs they’ve applied for, along with the phone numbers and names of the employers, if they wanted to keep their weekly benefits. They could also go to a state CareerSource center once a week to meet the weekly quota.
While those requirements might not sound like much, federal data shows that after Scott signed the requirements into law, they contributed to tripling the number of people ruled ineligible for benefits.
Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, also believes the requirements should be waived through July and believes DeSantis will ultimately waive them. She noted the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state, and that the state broke daily records for new cases twice this week.
“I fear that jobs may not be coming back as soon as (DeSantis) hopes,” Cruz said in a statement.
Tracking the job search requirements will place an additional burden on the state’s unemployment website, known as CONNECT. The site has been so swamped by unemployment claims that state officials are rationing how many people can use it at a time. And that’s without people having to log in each week to report their work searches.
“It would be a poor decision on every angle and would create so much more chaos,” Eskamani said.
DeSantis has not said what his long-term plan is or how he’s deciding when to extend the waiver of search requirements.
“The Governor continues to monitor the data and will decide if any further determination will need to be made regarding this issue," spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said in an email Friday.
The lack of information is exasperating, said Sen. José Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, who testified before Congress this week about Florida’s broken unemployment system.
DeSantis has said one of the reasons he’s pushed to open up Florida’s economy is that he’s concerned about the mental health of the state’s residents during a panic-inducing event like the pandemic.
Yet he’s often waited until a day or even hours before his executive orders expire, giving people little time to brace for life-changing events when they’re already anxious. In addition to the work requirement waivers, on June 1 — just four hours before his statewide moratorium on evictions expired — he announced he was extending the moratorium until July 1.
“He will do them at the 11th hour, and for things like the eviction moratorium, it must drive people crazy,” Rodriguez said. This week’s extension is “not at the 11th hour. It’s more like 10:30.”
Other major changes have also been cryptic. The state didn’t make a public announcement that anyone who applied before April 5 for unemployment benefits would need to reapply, for example. Nor did they announce a recent change to how often people would receive benefits. People are now being paid every two weeks, rather than every week.
“The way they manage this is just so confusing,” Rodriguez said. “Tell us what you’re thinking. Tell us what your plan is. How are you making your decision?”
The state has made large gains toward getting benefits to unemployed Floridians recently. As of Thursday, the state has paid more than 1.3 million Floridians more than $5.3 billion in state and federal benefits. But more than 2.4 million claims have been filed, with at least 180,000 people waiting to have their application processed.
That appears to include Rooney, who hasn’t received benefits during the pandemic. He said his account shows “active,” but his monetary determination is “pending.”
He’s written letters to the governor and state officials and even offered to work in one of the call centers contracted by Department of Economic Opportunity to handle unemployment calls. He has yet to receive much more than an automated response.
“In all honesty, it’s humiliating,” Rooney said. “I feel like less of a man because I can’t do anything. I don’t want to be on unemployment. That’s not a way for me to live.”
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