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With $600 checks disappearing, unemployed Floridians are facing a ‘perfect storm’ of problems

Floridians will see their last federal unemployment checks this month.

For the last four months, unemployed Floridians were handed a lifeline through the $600 weekly benefits doled out by the federal CARES Act.

The payments were a critical supplement to Florida’s standard benefits, which are among the stingiest in the nation. And the $9 billion in payments sent to Floridians was a major boost to the state’s fraying economy, which has been decimated by the pandemic.

No longer.

Because Congress failed to reach a deal before the $600 checks expired Friday, unemployed Floridians are going to have to live — at least now — on payments of no more than $275 per week.

Nearly 900,000 Floridians applied for or received unemployment benefits during the most recent period. Nearly 600,000 Floridians are behind on their power bills. The only thing keeping many from being evicted from their homes is an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis — a short-term solution that many agree can’t continue indefinitely.

“For us, it’s the perfect storm,” said state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach.

Related: Should federal unemployment benefits be extended? Ron DeSantis won’t weigh in.

Families will start feeling the squeeze in the next few weeks, when they claim the smaller benefits from the final weeks of July.

Lauren Long, who owns her own music agency in Orlando, will start to receive just $125 per week instead of $725. So will her husband, a professional musician whose gigs have disappeared with the closure of bars, concerts and corporate events.

They should be eligible individually for up to $275 per week — the most Florida’s system gives out. But to be eligible for that, they need to submit proof of income and other documents. The state Department of Economic Opportunity, which has been beleaguered by online system failures, has been unable to receive or process their paperwork, however, she said.

After taxes, both Long, 35, and her husband will receive just $113 per week. With a 3-year-old son and monthly rent of $2,000, it’s unsustainable. They can’t move to a cheaper place, because they have to prove their income, which they don’t have. Apartments she looked at were requiring 12 months of rent up front, Long said.

“It’s insanity. We’re talking anywhere from $20-25,000, plus deposit,” she said. “My husband and I personally are moving in with family, because we have no other option right now.”

As of Friday, the House, Senate and Trump administration appeared to be far apart on another coronavirus relief bill as additional unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans.

Related: Florida’s unemployed still haven’t been paid. And they don’t think it’s their fault.

“We’re nowhere close to a deal,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters Wednesday evening, shortly after a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Democrats want to keep the weekly $600 federal benefits in place until January 2021. Republicans have argued that amount discourages people from finding work, although a recent Yale University study found no evidence it contributed to unemployment.

Republicans have proposed an additional $200 per week through September. After September, states would be expected to adjust unemployment benefits to roughly 70 percent of income, up to a maximum of $500 per week.

Republicans also want liability protection for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, while Democrats do not. Both parties favor sending additional $1,200 checks to most Americans.

Florida’s two Republican senators appear to disagree on coronavirus relief.

“I’m very concerned about the amount of money we’re talking about,” Sen. Rick Scott said to reporters on Tuesday. He’s frustrated that 42 states, including Florida, haven’t told Congress how they spent $150 billion in state-specific aid from the $2.9 trillion CARES Act that became law in March before Congress spends more money on another relief package.

Sen. Marco Rubio argued that delaying a relief bill will cause further harm to America’s economy.

“Another $1 trillion in debt is bad,” Rubio tweeted on Wednesday. “But the damage if we don’t act boldly would be far worse. Millions of Americans who lost their jobs are struggling to make ends meet now & won’t have a job to return to later.”

When asked last month what Congress should do, DeSantis didn’t answer, adding that he wasn’t following what his former colleagues were doing.

Pizzo, one of the few state lawmakers who has been intensely involved in the state’s unemployment quagmire, scoffed at the Republicans’ plan.

“What the hell are you going to do with $200 plus $275? Nothing,” Pizzo said.

Since March, when the pandemic led to a historic surge in unemployment claims, the average state benefit has been $230 per week, according to state officials. Without a supplement, both liberal and conservative-leaning think tanks in Florida said the $600 should be extended.

Cindy Huddleston, a senior policy analyst with the Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning group that promotes economic mobility for Floridians, said without more aid, she expects an increase in demand for food stamps and other state benefits.

“It kind of hits the state from all sides when the $600 runs out,” Huddleston said.

Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, a conservative-leaning group, said concerns about whether the $600 per week payouts are too high are greatly outweighed by the benefits to the economy.

“It’s an important shot in the arm in Florida’s economy and very much needed,” Calabro said.

Times staff writer Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.

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