The COVID-19 pandemic has clouded many national and state policy decisions since it emerged, but in Florida, the coronavirus outbreak has exposed at least one glaring truth: the unemployment system needs an overhaul.
The signal event was the collapse of Florida’s unemployment website in March, when the state’s unemployment rate tripled to 12.9 percent. The crash left hundreds of thousands of newly jobless Floridians waiting weeks for their first benefit checks.
The state has spent more than $100 million to upgrade the system, which Gov. Ron DeSantis called the “the equivalent of throwing a jalopy into the Daytona 500,” by purchasing 72 servers, reassigning 2,000 state workers and contracting thousands of private call center employees to assist.
Republicans have joined Democrats in vowing to reassess the state’s unemployment system when the 2021 legislative session kicks off in March, but Democrats struck first Thursday by introducing a draft bill overhauling the system.
The bill, drafted by Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, and Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, would nearly double Florida’s weekly $275 benefit maximum, the nation’s lowest, and its eligibility time span.
Democrats say changes to the system made in 2011 and orchestrated by former governor and now U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, not technology failings, are the system’s biggest problems. The changes made it more difficult to apply for unemployment and trimmed eligibility to a national-low 12 weeks.
“We want bipartisan support,” Eskamani said. “These are commonsense solutions.”
“Very few of these ideas are new,” Rodríguez said.
Under the draft proposal, maximum weekly benefits would increase to $500 per week, the number of weeks eligible would be extended from 12 to 26 and, for the first time, self-employed workers would be eligible for state benefits.
The measure would allow Floridians to receive benefits from the day they lost their job, rather than the day they applied for benefits, and it would require the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO) to determine applicants’ eligibility within three weeks, noting many Floridians have often waited three months or longer before receiving benefits.
“There’s got to be a deadline. You can’t just send in your application, whether it’s electronically or by paper, and just have it sit, particularly in a situation like this where folks are experiencing tremendous hardship,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, who will carry the bill in the House. “The idea that we’re just going to let people float in limbo indefinitely is just not fair, it’s just not right.”
The bill also would:
• Create a reemployment assistance ombudsman office to review the unemployment assistance process each year;
• Require the FDEO to provide at least two additional ways for residents to apply for assistance on top of the online application at floridajobs.org;
• Make it so applicants can’t be denied for leaving a job because of an illness or disability, caring for sick family members, having to relocate because their spouse got a new job and their employer moving somewhere that would require them to commute an hour or more. Domestic violence victims also could not be denied;
• Mandate the FDEO to adopt a “set of workplace safety rules” with help from the Florida Department of Health and make it so individuals can’t be denied for turning down unsafe work.