Florida needs federal unemployment benefits extended | Opinion
The $600 in federal weekly benefits expired on July 31.
The U.S. Capitol are seen in Washington. Lawmakers are still trying to agree on a plan that would include extending federal unemployment benefits.
The U.S. Capitol are seen in Washington. Lawmakers are still trying to agree on a plan that would include extending federal unemployment benefits. [ CAROLYN KASTER | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 3, 2020

Congress has debated for weeks about how to extend federal unemployment benefits as the economy continues to wobble. Republicans and Democrats have larded up their proposals with extraneous requests that have little to do with fighting the economic crisis in real time, including $1.75 billion for a new FBI building and $40 million for environmental surveillance. The politics-as-usual approach won’t cut it. The $600 a week in federal benefits has run out, and the consequences are about to become real — more unemployed workers falling behind on rent, more parents worried about how to feed their children, more people unable to pay for medications. Enough of the partisan sparring. It’s past time for our elected leaders to extend the benefits.

In March and April, most of the country was asked to begin sheltering at home to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. The result was a record number of people put out of work, with little chance of quickly finding new jobs. Congress eventually ponied up $600 a week in additional unemployment benefits, a figure based on rough estimates of median income. What the plan lacked in precision, it made up for in speed and simplicity, much needed given how unprepared many state unemployment systems were for the influx of jobless claims. Florida’s system buckled leaving tens of thousands of residents waiting weeks to receive an initial payment.

For weeks, our leaders have known the federal benefits would expire on July 31. They had plenty of time to come up with a system to target the people who most need the extra money. Instead, they remain far apart, with Democrats calling for continuing the $600, while Republicans talk about $200 (though some still prefer ending the extra benefits entirely). The Republicans would also like states to eventually adjust benefits to roughly 70 percent of income, up to a maximum of $500. While the two sides dither, the economy teeters. While they bicker, more people are about to suffer.

Florida only pays a maximum of $275 a week in benefits. Even with the extra $600 in federal help, the people who receive the maximum of $875 spend most of it — on rent, groceries, gas, electric bills. That’s the point — helping people with essential financial needs creates spending, which keeps the economy from stalling. Consumer spending is exactly what American businesses need right now. Some of our elected leaders have lost track of that fact.

Adding to an already eye-popping national debt isn’t ideal. But that’s an argument for fiscal restraint during good times, which Congress rarely seems to adopt. And with interest rates at record lows, the debt burden will be more manageable. Ending federal unemployment benefits at this point in the crisis is akin to a boxer tying one of his arms behind his back half way through a fight and then wondering why he keeps getting slugged in the face. Talk about self-inflicted harm. Now is the time to fight with every available weapon. Unemployment hovers in the double digits. Weekly jobless claims remain at historic levels. Even Florida TaxWatch, a group known for pinching taxpayers’ pennies, has said that the additional federal benefits are a needed shot in the arm.

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Our leaders don’t need to agree on a perfect plan. The pandemic has taught us all that we must be nimble — make the best decision with the best current information and then be prepared to make another decision down the road. In this case, one side wants $600, the other $200: How about splitting the difference at $400 for two months and then using that time to hash out a better plan? Problem solved, at least for now. The economy can’t wait, nor can the millions of people trying to get by under difficult financial circumstances.

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 Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news