Lawmakers should raise Florida’s unemployment payments to $375. Will they? | Editorial
Florida still pays the same amount as 23 years ago.
Florida is tightfisted when it comes to unemployment benefits.
Florida is tightfisted when it comes to unemployment benefits.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Apr. 15

Florida has a well-earned reputation for stinginess toward unemployment benefits. The maximum payment is well below the national average, and the state is much likelier to deny out-of-work benefits altogether than nearly every other state. Chintzy and hard to get — a disappointing combination given the important role unemployment benefits play during hard times, both for Floridians who lose their jobs and the overall economy. A bill in the state Senate proposes a reasonable increase to the weekly payout. It’s time for lawmakers to step up and make this needed change.

Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week to people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. That’s the same amount as 23 years ago, when President Bill Clinton was denying he had “sexual relations” with a White House intern and Titanic was winning 11 Oscars. If the cap were tied to inflation, it would have grown to about $445 this year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Instead, Florida’s jobless have to make due with $6.88 an hour, based on a standard work week. And that’s the maximum. Before the pandemic, many lower-wage workers often got less, bringing the average payout closer to $255 a week. Try living on that for a couple weeks while looking for work, let alone a few months.

A bill from Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur would raise the cap to $375 a week, still below the national average payout of about $390, but a substantial bump nonetheless. “A good starting point,” Brodeur said of his Senate Bill 1906 last month. Indeed it is. Several states pay more than $700 a week, but that kind of increase isn’t feasible in Florida. For one, it would be laughed out of the Republican-controlled Legislature. Brodeur’s smart proposal lives in what should be the Goldilocks zone — reasonable enough not to repulse too many of his GOP colleagues while still providing a much-needed financial boost to unemployed workers.

Over the years, opponents of raising the state’s cap have relied on the old trope that they don’t like paying people not to work — that somehow $275 a week promotes laziness and abuse. Again, try living on less than $7 an hour and then make that argument with a straight face. Yes, everyone would prefer that people who want a job have one, and that no one ever needed unemployment assistance. But if creating and maintaining jobs were that easy, we would experience fewer recessions, and the unemployment rate would never rise above a mere rounding error. Until politicians figure out that trick, the state should provide limited but reasonable financial assistance to people who lose their jobs.

Last year at this time, there were way more people who wanted to work than there were available jobs. Were all those people just lazy? At one point during the Great Recession, there were six people looking for work for every job opening in the country. Were all those people abusing the system? Of course not. Most wanted to work, but the jobs didn’t exist, no matter the bloviations from too many out-of-touch politicians.

Laid-off workers use the weekly assistance to pay for essentials like food, rent and gas. The spending creates a virtuous spending cycle that keeps individuals and businesses afloat, especially during economic downturns. It’s a bulwark against hard times for everyone, not just the unemployed.

Florida already has a mechanism for ensuring workers don’t collect assistance for too long when jobs are available — the maximum number of weeks fluctuates based on the unemployment rate. When the rate is below 5 percent, the unemployed can collect benefits for only up to 12 weeks. The cap rises to 23 weeks when unemployment hits 10.5 percent. Currently, the state pays for a maximum of 19 weeks, thanks to the pandemic-induced spike in unemployment last year. By this time next year, the cap could be back down to 12 weeks.

And it’s not like Florida makes it easy for the unemployed. Only about 11 percent of unemployed workers in the state received benefits in 2019, second lowest behind only North Carolina, according to Labor Department data. New Jersey paid closer to 57 percent of its unemployed workers.

Brodeur’s bill comes before the Senate Appropriations Committee today. The members should readily approve this common sense upgrade to the state’s unemployment system and encourage their colleagues in the Senate and the House to do the same. Lawmakers must be vigilant financial shepherds of the state coffers. But sometimes stinginess is self-defeating.

Maximum weekly unemployment benefits

Top six states

Massachusetts $855

Washington $844

Minnesota $762

New Jersey $713

Connecticut $667

Colorado $649

Bottom six states

Alabama $275

Florida $275

Tennessee $275

Louisiana $247

Arizona $240

Mississippi $235

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.