MIAMI, Florida – Over the past three weeks, as the community imposes measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, thousands of South Floridians – low, medium, and high-income earners, have lost their jobs, or have been placed on furlough from their jobs without salary.
Most of these recently unemployed people already lived paycheck-to-paycheck and have little or no financial savings. They are turning to the state for assistance through the Florida Reemployment Assistance Program, formerly the Florida Unemployment Assistance Program.
Last week, applications for assistance under the Florida program increased by over 1200 percent from 6,000 to 74,000 and with more people being laid off daily, it is likely to increase by several more thousands this week.
But applicants are reacting with shock and disappointment of how stingy the amount is they are eligible to get from the state to compensate them being unemployed. Florida’s maximum weekly unemployed benefit is only $275, the sixth-lowest in America, and has not increased for over two decades. Worse yet, the 12-week duration of the benefit is the lowest in the nation.
While a few years ago during the great recession, Florida’s unemployment benefit was for a maximum duration of 26 weeks. Former Governor Rick Scott and the Republican lead legislature which was instrumental in reducing it to 12 weeks to satisfy the state’s big businesses.
Under pressure from the state’s biggest businesses to cut the taxes, they paid for unemployment business. Scott agreed to reduce the duration in which the unemployed received the benefit, and refused appeals to increase the benefits, claiming he did not support increasing taxes.
Now, sitting in the US Senate as one of two representatives from Florida, Scott was one of four senators that threatened to block the Senate approving the $2,2 trillion relief package to assist Americans feeling the economic pinch because of COVID-19. Scott’s argument was that the inclusion of $600 per week in unemployment assistance over four months would discourage people from working.
Although Scott’s disdain for the payment of unemployment benefits was already exposed during his tenure as Florida’s governor, his opposition to this aspect of the federal relief package was nonetheless shocking. Either he does not understand the unemployment implications arising from the economic crisis created by the spread of COVID-19, or is not cognizant that Florida will experience historic unemployment as thousands, if not millions, of Floridians lose jobs in the state’s tourism and travel sectors, among the largest employers in Florida.
But Scott wasn’t only instrumental in reducing the duration of Florida’s unemployment benefits, he made it difficult to obtain by making a criterion to get the benefit, presentation of proof that the applicant applied for at least five jobs before getting each two-weeks benefit. He also created a system where application could only be made through the state’s online portal called CONNECT accessible through www.floridajobs.org/Reemployment-Assistance-Service-Center, and not by in-person or telephone applications.
Last week, people were experiencing major frustration in submitting their applications as the website seem overwhelmed with CONNECT displaying the message “We are experiencing higher than average wait time. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.”
With the demand increasing for unemployment benefits it is imperative on incumbent Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to take measures to ensure Floridians are adequately compensated during the COVID-19 crisis which could continue over several months.
Thankfully, there are signs that DeSantis appreciates the frustrations being experienced by the state’s unemployed. He has lifted the work-search criteria, and ordered the secretary of Florida’s Department of Employment Opportunity to significantly increase the staff at its call center to enable residents to get information related to applying for benefits.
But much more radical changes are needed. The capacity of the state’s website must be expanded to enable applicants easier access in submitting their applications. More staff are needed to process these applications to ensure the shortest possible turn-around time in having funds deposited in applicant’s accounts.
Most importantly, the governor needs to give serious consideration to signing an executive order to increase the amount of the benefit and extend its duration. Surely this can be done as an emergency act during the COVID-19 crisis.
Floridians also need to know when will the new federal allocation of $600 weekly will take effect. Will this $600 be paid in addition to the current $275 limit, or any new limit approved by the state? Will the federal limit of four months or 16 weeks extend Florida’s payment limit from 12 to 16 weeks? The public needs answers to these questions immediately.
The challenges being imposed on Florida residents from COVID-19 is creating not just an economic crisis but also a social security crisis. Florida families stand to encounter all varieties of insecurities and related damages if the state doesn’t make the path to obtain the unemployment benefit as smoothly, and the benefit as practical, as possible.
The current high rate of unemployment is created by very unexpected and unusual circumstances, and unusual actions are sorely needed from the state to provide help.