FL Legislature 2021: Working families caught between economic crisis and pandemic

Florida jobs are on the rise, but wages are not. Credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle

The least-fortunate of Florida’s working families are in trouble, in ways that Florida lawmakers have never faced before.

Few could have imagined the coronavirus pandemic would persist for over a year, with hundreds of thousands of Floridians still, or again, unemployed and struggling.

Hundreds of thousands are at risk of being disconnected from utilities and/or evicted from their homes for inability to pay, while Unemployment Insurance benefits ebb and flow unpredictably.

Unlike the Great Recession of 2008, which snuffed out wealth and jobs when financial markets collapsed, the calamities of 2020-21 cannot be overcome with austerity measures, stimulus programs, and perseverance.

This one involves a public-health crisis brought on by a virus never seen before that has defied containment and is mutating rapidly as vaccinators race to get ahead of it.

Since the first death on March 5, COVID-19 has killed 28,048 Floridians, according to the Florida Department of Health.

When the Legislature convenes March 2, a year and a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state’s first two infections, lawmakers will face dueling emergencies — one economic, one of public health. The solutions to each appear at odds with the other, and working-class families are caught in between.

Unemployment in the pandemic

Florida lost 1.2 million jobs between February and April of last year and has gained back just half of them. At last report, in December, Florida’s jobless rate was 6.1 percent (614,000 jobless workers), according to the U.S Department of Labor.

In the spring, laid-off workers in record numbers swamped Florida’s “Reemployment Assistance” site called CONNECT to claim Unemployment Insurance benefits capped at $275 a week for 12 weeks. (The total maximum payout is the lowest in the nation, according to the Labor Department).

Jobless workers demonstrate in Miami Springs in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

CONNECT jammed, crashed, and stumbled for months, but ultimately distributed $4.2 billion in state-based benefits and nearly $18 billion in federal benefits to 2.2 million beneficiaries, as of Monday, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Recently, the system likely was hacked, according to news reports published by the Miami Herald and by PYMNTS.com, a platform serving the payments and commerce industry, which said both Florida and California are investigating surges in new claims which may have been filed by bad actors, perhaps organized crime rings abroad, using stolen identities.

While Congress deliberates another COVID relief package expected to supplement unemployment benefits paid by the states, Democratic lawmakers in Florida want to permanently increase the state’s share.

For most of last year, without success, they called on GOP leaders to convene a special session of the Legislature to address the unemployment crisis as it unfolded.

One proposal, Senate Bill 592 and House Bill 207, cosponsored by Sen. Bobby Powell, Palm Beach County Democrat, Rep. Anna Eskamani, Orange County Democrat, and Rep. Ben Diamond, Pinellas County Democrat, would set weekly benefits at $500, rather than $275, and pay them for 26 weeks, rather than 12, more in line with the national average.

The plan also would revise eligibility to cover layoffs of more types of workers and appoint an ombudsman to help Floridians resolve their problems with the system.

Republicans, who outnumber Democrats, have expressed no interest in increasing the benefit. It was set low by former Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and now a U.S. senator, amid the high unemployment of the Great Recession to slow down payouts and avoid raising payroll taxes on employers.

The chairs of legislative committees that deal with workforce issues did not schedule any of their February pre-session hearings to address unemployment payments, unemployment taxes, or the failings of the CONNECT system, but it is still early.

Rich Templin, legislative director with AFL-CIO Florida, said he is not surprised, because big business opposes any moves that could raise their unemployment payroll taxes.

Open for business

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said repeatedly he will not allow another lockdown, like the one in April, no matter what happens next with the novel coronavirus and its expanding mutations.

To promote Florida’s economic wellbeing, DeSantis and Republican allies argue that resumption of commerce cannot wait on a COVID-free environment, and that businesses and schools can fully reopen without putting Florida’s most at-risk populations in harm’s way.

A Jefferson County, FL restaurant in Monticello was closed earlier this year in 2020. Credit: Peter T. Reinwald.

Others disagree, citing high numbers of COVID infections in Florida, challenges in vaccine roll-outs, and Republican opposition to adopting enforceable COVID safety rules in indoor workplaces such as schools, restaurants, and shared office spaces.

For Republican leaders, the opening legislative salvo regarding workplaces is a COVID liability shield to fend off lawsuits from customers and employees who could otherwise claim they became infected in an employer’s place of business.

Attempts to amend the proposed COVID liability legislation by adding workforce safety regulations have, so far, failed along party lines, with Republicans voting them down.

Florida labor leaders hope the state Legislature will become more attuned to workers’ concerns now that the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration under President Joe Biden’s leadership has changed direction in workers’ favor.

Under new management, OSHA just issued specific guidance for places of business — including improved ventilation, screening employees for COVID symptoms, and requiring use of face masks — and promised to follow up with enforceable standards.

“This order is a critical first step to a comprehensive plan that will keep us safe on the job,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “Now, we must win strong safety and health provisions in the next coronavirus relief package and rebuild OSHA … and the entire [U.S.] Labor Department with a renewed commitment to workplace safety.”

Meanwhile, Templin stressed, Florida legislative committees that deal with workforce issues have heard and advanced legislation to make it more difficult to organize workers into labor unions.

Health care and housing

House and Senate Democrats want to expand access to health care coverage for low-income people who don’t currently qualify for Medicaid.

That includes thousands of low-wage workers who do not get insurance through their employers and either earn just a little too much to qualify or do not have minor dependents.

Legislation being sponsored by Sen. Perry Thurston of Broward County and Rep. Geraldine Thomson of Orange County would expand the criteria to encompass an estimated 900,000 people, including the “working poor,” who do not have other health care coverage.

The legislation faces an uphill battle, with Florida Republicans dating to the Scott administration opposing Medicaid expansion.

Renters without jobs during the coronavirus pandemic face eviction. Credit: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury/States Newsroom

Meanwhile, evictions have begun in Florida, despite Biden issuing a moratorium on evicting people for non-payment due to the pandemic. Millions of dollars in rental assistance have been provided by Congress, easing the pain for both tenants and landlords, but housing experts say the magnitude of the problem still outstrips the solutions.

In the Florida Legislature, Rep. Eskamani and Sen. Victor Torres, representing Miami-Dade, are pushing plans to help distressed renters by restoring local authority to implement rent control and stabilization.

That authority currently is preempted to government at the state level.

Eskamani and Torres also want to repeal Florida’s “pay to play” laws that do not allow delinquent tenants to fight evictions unless they first deposit the disputed funds with the courts. Those who fail to do so — which is most, since inability to pay is what brought them to the point of eviction — lose by default and must vacate the premises.

“Florida has always had an affordable housing crisis but this crisis has become dramatically worse with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Eskamani said in announcing the legislation.

“Since March 2020, our legislative office has provided support to more than 21,000 unemployment cases, and among those cases are struggling families who are also facing an eviction. It’s about time Florida did something to support our renters, and these two repealers would be easy but impactful steps in the right direction.”

Torres added that evicting families in the midst of the pandemic puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and of spreading it.