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  1. Opinion

Why is Sen. Rick Scott so heartless toward jobless Floridians? | Editorial

As governor and as senator, he remains tight-fisted on unemployment benefits.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., attends a news conference about the coronavirus relief bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Senators discussed what they are calling a "drafting error" in the 2 trillion dollar stimulus bill expected to be voted on today in the Senate. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) [ANDREW HARNIK | AP]

As governor, Rick Scott was notoriously callous toward jobless Floridians and made it as difficult as possible to collect the nation’s skimpiest unemployment benefits. He hasn’t changed a bit as U.S. senator, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that already has triggered record unemployment claims in the state and the nation. His role this week in temporarily delaying a massive stimulus package because of its expanded unemployment benefits indicates he is as out of touch as ever with Floridians struggling to survive.

Scott was one of four Senate Republicans who objected to a temporary increase in unemployment benefits in the massive stimulus package the Senate ultimately approved unanimously and the House is expected to approve Friday. He argued the bump was so sweet it could discourage people from working. That’s a twisted view of the financial devastation that working Americans are facing, and it insults the tens of thousands of Floridians who already have lost their jobs with restaurants, bars and tourist attractions shuttered.

The unemployment figures released Thursday hammer this home. More than 3 million people in America filed for jobless benefits last week, according to the Labor Department. That’s more than four times the record number in the half-century the government has collected figures. The number of Floridians who filed exploded, too, with 74,021 people signing up, more than 10 times the number from the week before.

Yet Scott coldly argued that the jobless benefits were just too darn generous in a stimulus package filled with billions for industry bailouts. The Senate bill provides $600 per week, for a period of four months, in additional unemployment aid beyond what benefits a state currently offers. The Republicans said that benefits should be capped at a worker’s income, and that anything more could encourage workers to stay home. “We cannot create an incentive not to work,” Scott said.

Workers can’t work if the government orders their employers to shut the doors. Under the federal legislation, some low-paid workers could temporarily receive more money in unemployment than they made at their jobs. But the flat, $600 increase was designed to distribute money to the states quickly - without wasting valuable time navigating the various state unemployment systems’ benefit formulas. Even the Trump administration agreed with this approach.

Not Scott, who warned of making Americans too dependent on government handouts. Nobody is getting rich in Florida on unemployment benefits, even with the additional $600 a week. Florida’s unemployment benefits are among the lowest in the nation, with an average of $254 per week and maximum of $275 per week, compared to the national average of $372 weekly. Scott ought to know because he was governor in 2011 when Florida cut the length of time Floridians could receive unemployment insurance, to 12 weeks from 26 weeks previously.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was sensible enough to realize that the unemployment aid was only temporary and certainly not worth holding up the legislation. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis relaxed eligibility standards for state unemployment assistance, no longer requiring recipients to apply to five jobs a week. These two are looking for ways to speedily help Floridians. Yet Scott’s rhetoric echoes the warnings about welfare queens from an earlier era, pitting Americans against each other in a crisis that cries out for compassion and unity.

The only silver lining: Scott has no seniority and is one of 100 senators, so by himself he can’t hurt Floridians as much as he did as governor. But it’s not for a lack of trying.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news