Guest Column
Legislature needs to improve unemployment benefits | Column
Florida’s hard-working families deserve better because nobody can get by on $275 a week.
Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown.
Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published March 23, 2021|Updated March 23, 2021

On the opening day of the legislative session, my friend and fellow Pasco County Republican Wilton Simpson told reporters he’s ready to support an increase in Florida’s absurdly low unemployment insurance benefits. Bravo. The Senate president gets it, and I hope he can quickly help more legislators understand the dire need to update Florida’s unemployment benefits.

The most any unemployed Floridian can qualify for today is $275 a week, for a limited number of weeks. Think about putting food on the table and paying your bills on $275 a week or less.

Mike Fasano
Mike Fasano [ Mike Fasano ]

The Legislature has not adjusted that maximum unemployment benefit in 23 years, even as the cost of living has steadily grown. In Tampa Bay consumer costs have risen 57 percent in Tampa Bay while unemployment benefits stayed static. In Miami-Dade, they rose more than 60 percent.

As Senate President Simpson noted to reporters earlier this month, those paltry benefits are even more outdated considering Floridians overwhelmingly approved a $15 minimum wage in 2020. That’s $600 a week — more than twice the cap on unemployment benefits.

There has been a lot of publicity about Florida’s $81 million fiasco of an unemployment system known as CONNECT, which seemed designed to make it as difficult as possible for eligible Floridians to access their benefits. Fixing that national embarrassment is critical but just doing that would be a failure by our legislators. Florida’s hard-working families deserve better because nobody can get by on $275 a week.

There are several bills before the Legislature that would raise benefits, including one by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, that would raise the cap to $375 a week (SB 1906), one by Reps. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, and Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, that would raise it to $500 (HB 207), and one by Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, that would raise it to $600 (SB 604). I hope Sen. Simpson and other strong leaders will ensure raising benefits becomes at least as high a priority for the Legislature this year as rolling back unemployment taxes.

Unfortunately, some of my fellow Republicans view unemployment benefits as a handout that hurts businesses or discourages people from seeking jobs.

I can’t imagine those who hold that view have actually met or spoken to hard-working men and women who have ever lost a job or faced hard times. Otherwise they would know these overwhelmingly are hard-working Floridians merely looking for, and needing, temporary relief until they get back to work. Unemployment is not a charity, but an insurance system to protect workers and our economy. The modest benefits stimulate the economy because those who most need the help spend it on goods and services.

There still are several weeks in the legislative session and plenty of time for lawmakers to address the crying need for more reasonable benefits that Senate President Simpson acknowledged on the opening day. Tallahassee leaders wants to use online sales tax revenue to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund. That is a good way to ensure Florida businesses don’t bear the burden of higher unemployment taxes, but if the little guy and gal shopping online is being asked to shore up that trust fund, they also deserve to have a humane and reasonable unemployment benefit should they ever need it.

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Mike Fasano is the Pasco County Tax Collector. He served 18 years in the Florida House and Senate.