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‘Small victory’: Florida waives work requirements for food stamp recipients for another month

Advocates had warned Florida officials that forcing people to look for jobs, or risk losing federal assistance for food, could put them at more risk for contracting the virus.

Facing a workforce still grappling with the coronavirus crisis, Florida officials said Tuesday that they would extend for another month a waiver of job search requirements residents must comply with so that they can get aid to buy food.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday directed the Florida Department of Children and Families to postpone the reinstatement of the work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — once known as food stamps — as a condition to get the aid through August, according to department spokeswoman DaMonica Smith. The Department of Children and Families administers the federal aid program, widely known as SNAP.

“At this time, the state is at varying levels of recovery,” Smith said in an email Tuesday.

Smith said the decision was reached Tuesday after internal discussions, which came after state officials faced mounting questions about whether they were quietly reinstating work requirements for some SNAP recipients.

In general, so-called “able-bodied” adults under the age of 50 must document that they’re spending 80 hours a month working, looking for work or taking job skills training so that they can get food assistance. For a family of four, the maximum monthly benefit is $646. There are a number of situations where a recipient doesn’t need to meet those requirements, such as if they have dependents, are pregnant or care for an incapacitated individual.

But the pandemic poses an economic challenge for able-bodied adults. A withered labor market where many businesses are just trying to hang on provides scant opportunities for work or job interviews. Exacerbating the issue for some, advocates note, is that online job training or remote work may not be available to some low-income recipients who don’t have internet access.

These same work requirements have historically forced significant numbers of SNAP participants out of the food assistance program, sometimes even when they have legitimate reasons for not meeting the requirements, said Cindy Huddleston, senior policy analyst and attorney with the nonprofit research organization Florida Policy Institute.

“It loses so many people for red tape, not because they’re ineligible or don’t want to work,” Huddleston said. “Because of reasons beyond their control, they can’t do what the department wants them to do.”

The demand for food stamps amid the pandemic has surged. The number of Florida households relying on them rose nearly 40 percent from February to May, with more than 2 million households using them.

The state initially announced in March that it would temporarily waive the work requirements. The state kept that waiver in place through June, Smith said.

At the beginning of July, the work requirements began to get “phased in,” according to Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. She said that’s what she was told by state officials when she asked about them earlier this month. A similar description was also given Tuesday by Christina Witt, a program director with CareerSource Tampa Bay.

Eskamani said she’d asked department officials for weeks for more details on what was happening with SNAP work requirements — and was given few details. The Tampa Bay Times asked the Department of Children and Families nearly two weeks ago about the reinstatement of work mandates and was not provided any information from that agency until Tuesday’s announcement about the extension of the waiver.

The Florida Policy Institute sent a letter to DeSantis on July 20 urging him, in part, to reconsider the reinstatement of SNAP work requirements. It noted that, “with rampant unemployment,” SNAP participants are even less likely to be able to find jobs than they were before the pandemic. And it expressed concerns that forcing people to look for jobs could put them at more risk for contracting the virus.

The letter was co-signed by dozens of other organizations, including the Florida Children’s Council, the League of Women Voters of Florida and United Way of Florida.

Huddleston said Tuesday evening that she was “thrilled” that the state “rethought its decision to reinstate work requirements. We think it’s not only in the best interest of participants in the program but everyone in the community.”

Eskamani called Tuesday’s announcement a “small victory” for low-income people struggling during the pandemic. But she said a delay, only until September, was not enough.

“We’re nowhere near recovery,” Eskamani said.

Related: Tampa Bay nonprofits on front line of pandemic say expansion of food stamp program urgently needed
Related: What to know about Florida's food stamps program during the pandemic

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