Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday named Rep. Dane Eagle to replace Ken Lawson as executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, the beleaguered agency in charge of the jobless system that struggled to issue payments when the coronavirus pandemic led to a surge in unemployment.
“I am humbled and excited to serve Governor DeSantis and the people of Florida in this role,” Eagle said in a prepared statement. “We enter in precarious times and I look forward to working with my former colleagues to effectuate change and lead DEO into a bright future.”
Lawson resigned “in the spirit of turning the page and moving forward,” as he wrote in a letter to DeSantis on Monday. Tuesday was his last day in charge.
Eagle’s first day will be Sept. 14. Jonathan Satter, who was chosen by DeSantis to fix the system in April after Lawson failed to get payments moving, will work with Eagle “to ensure a smooth changeover of oversight of the state’s reemployment assistance program,” DeSantis spokesman Cody McCloud wrote in an email.
DeSantis put Satter in charge of the system and sidelined Lawson after the state processed just 4% of a backlog of 850,000 claims that piled up in the month after the pandemic first caused major job losses in mid-March. Lawson remained on as DEO executive director, however, overseeing other parts of the agency.
At the time, DeSantis said he was frustrated about having to issue an executive order to waive a requirement that beneficiaries recertify their unemployment status every two weeks. The waiver should’ve been done without the need for an order, but he “forced DEO’s hand.”
DeSantis has made other moves to try to speed up the payment process, such as waiving the work search requirement to receive benefits. That waiver, though, expires Saturday.
Democrats in the Legislature have pressed DeSantis to take more action to help the unemployed, after their push for a special session in May to increase jobless benefits and fix the system was rebuffed by Republicans, including Eagle.
When Eagle does take over the jobless benefits system, it will be amid another set of changes. Florida received approval on Saturday from the federal government for the Lost Wages Assistance program set up by President Trump last month via executive order.
The program pays an extra $300 each week to those receiving benefits, but only those receiving more than $100 per week can qualify.
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, and Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, wrote a letter to DeSantis on Wednesday asking him to use state funds to pay the difference for people receiving less than $100 a week.
“By making up the difference for claimants who do not meet the $100 minimum, the state of Florida can effectively draw down the additional $300 a week and include a large number of out-of-work Floridians who will be left out if no further action is taken,” the letter states.
Eagle is a Cape Coral Republican and a commercial real estate broker with a degree in economics from the University of Florida. He has represented the southwest Florida area in the state House since 2012 and narrowly lost a GOP primary for a U.S. House seat last month to fellow state Rep. Bryan Donalds.
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Eagle climbed the leadership ladder in the Republican ranks in the Legislature, becoming Majority Leader in 2018, despite being stopped by police under suspicion of driving under the influence in 2014 in Tallahassee during a legislative session.
He refused to take a breath test and later pleaded no contest to a reckless driving charge and sentenced to six months of probation but maintained that he wasn’t under the influence.
Before getting elected, Eagle served as deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist from 2007-2009. Crist was a Republican at the time but later became a Democrat and is now a U.S. House member. In that role, Eagle worked under Crist’s chief of staff, Shane Strum, who now has the same position under DeSantis.
Getting the unemployment system straightened out is likely to be his top priority. Democrats are already pressing him. Eskamani posted on Twitter that she texted him to talk about the issue shortly after his hire was announced.