U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala and Florida State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez embarked on a barnstorming tour Thursday morning to keep the plight of their constituents in the public eye.
Both Shalala and Rodriguez were hoping to rally support for the extension of federal benefits to the unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they held two press conferences and later led a car caravan to U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s Miami office to deliver their message in person.
Shalala, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said Thursday morning that the House of Representatives has voted to extend the $600 weekly federal benefit until next January. The Senate has not passed that provision, and as of now, the federal benefits expire on July 31.
“Our community has been hit particularly hard as our economy is so dependent on tourism and hospitality. My district, District 27, has been devastated and our workers are desperate for income,” said Shalala. “This is about hard working people in our community.
“It’s about supporting their families. Through no fault of their own, they’ve seen their income disappear and they’re struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.”
Shalala said that she supports a bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Ron Wyden to extend the benefits, and she said she will lobby on its behalf when she returns to Washington.
Rodriguez, who represents Florida’s SD 37, said that the state has not been responsive to citizens seeking benefits, and he said the system does not appear to be improving.
Rodriguez also said that the federal benefits have been vital, and he referenced a Columbia University study that indicated that the poverty rate could’ve risen to 16 percent without them. That’s why he’s seeking to extend those benefits and alleviate the strain on citizens.
“The political challenge is the conservative attitude in D.C.,” he said. They just want to be over it and move on. They want to ignore the depth of this crisis from a public health standpoint and want to ignore the fact that COVID-19 is not under control, that we’re still in the first wave.
“There are likely more economic shutdowns coming and so many of our constituents are going to need to turn to or return to the unemployment system.”
One Rodriguez constituent, IT professional Joel Diaz, took part in a Thursday morning conference cal with the legislators and said that he would be homeless if not for federal benefits. Diaz said it took three months to receive his benefits, and those three months were the worst of his life.
“The virus has turned the world upside down and stopped everything, except the bills keep coming. I’m very thankful to have gotten in contact with Sen. Rodriguez,” said Diaz. “I originally applied for unemployment benefits on April 2nd. It was June 9 when I spoke to Sen. Rodriguez and I still hadn’t received a dime. It took the senator’s office a month of constant communication with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and myself to fix this issue.”
Another local citizen, Sandra Speier, said that she had never been on unemployment before the COVID-19 outbreak, and she said the federal benefits have kept her household afloat. The average state unemployment compensation in Florida, said Speier, is only about $125 a week.
“This notion of people making more on unemployment is complete hypocrisy,” said Speier, a single mother. “The $600 isn’t making people want to stay home.
“In most cases, it’s saving their lives so they don’t have to end up homeless and hungry. It’s helping us get by. Its helping us to help the economy until things get back to normal.”