FL to remove 1-week waiting period for jobless workers seeking benefits; application process is a nightmare

Workers in Miami-Dade County. Wikimedia Commons photo

While thousands of jobless workers remain frustrated by Florida’s cumbersome unemployment benefits application process, the state is waiving a requirement that could get benefits to people more quickly during the coronavirus crisis.

In an emergency rule published Tuesday, the Department of Economic Opportunity said it will not enforce a provision in state law that normally denies jobless workers their unemployment benefits in the first week after their application is approved.

“Strict compliance with the requirements of (the law) would prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with the emergency,” Ken Lawson, the DEO executive director, said in his emergency order.

Workers will not have to wait a week for their unemployment benefits if their claim was made on March 29 or later, Lawson said. The waiver will remain in effect as long as the emergency order is in effect and it could be extended, he said.

The decision is important because a provision in the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion economic relief package signed into law on Friday by President Donald Trump, provides that the federal government will reimburse Florida and any state that waives the one-week waiting period.

It’s an issue that state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, raised in a letter to Lawson on Friday.

“Under the federal legislation, states that waive the one-week waiting period will be fully reimbursed by the federal government for that week of benefits paid out to workers,” Rodriguez wrote.

Rodriguez, who continues to urge the DEO to make its unemployment benefits system more accessible to jobless workers, said he was pleased by the agency’s decision.

“The one week waiting period for unemployment has been waived as long as Florida is in a state of emergency,” Rodriguez tweeted today. “Thank you @FLDEO for the emergency order published today. It’s great news for out-of-work Floridians and positions us to bring more funding to Florida via CARES Act.”

There are a number of other unresolved issues with Florida’s unemployment benefits system that is being hammered by the record number of workers who are losing their jobs because of the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Unemployment is skyrocketing in Florida as the COVID-19 outbreak has forced the closure of hotels, dine-in restaurants, bars, and other businesses — particularly those that rely on the more than 120 million tourists who normally visit the state each year.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced on Thursday that Florida had reported a record 74,021 workers filing for unemployment through March 21, among 3.3 million workers nationally who filed unemployment claims last week.

Rodriguez, other lawmakers and state labor leaders are calling on Florida to extend its 12-week unemployment benefit period to 26 weeks, which most states have done. For instance, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia extended his state’s benefit period to 26 weeks last week.

The extension is important because it would allow workers to collect unemployment benefits up to 39 weeks because the CARES Act will pay for the  extension of the normal benefits period. If Florida doesn’t change its 12-week period, workers would only get up to 25 weeks of benefits.

The CARES Act will also boost unemployment benefits for Florida workers by an additional $600 a week on top of their normal state benefits. Under state law, Florida workers can only qualify for up to $275 a week in benefits, one of the lowest amounts in the nation.

But the biggest issue with the DEO’s benefit system remains the inability of many workers to successfully navigate the application process in order to qualify for the benefits. Critics say the system is virtually inoperable.

The Florida Phoenix reported on those issues in this story.

In a press conference today, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the DEO is working on resolving the numerous issues with the unemployment benefits application system.

“It’s obviously a priority. I know they’re working very hard on it. You’re talking about a capacity (issue) for that agency that is so far beyond what they have been able to do,” DeSantis said.

“Basically, my direction has been don’t spare any expense, hire who we need to hire in order to be able to get this done. It’s important to folks,” he said. “These are not people who are losing their jobs because of anything they did. This is something that was a shock to the system.”