There’s a new obstacle to increasing Florida’s unemployment benefits, which rank among the stingiest in the United States: Gov. Ron DeSantis
“Increase benefits? Look, no,” the governor said when asked about the matter during a news conference Friday in Lakeland.
“I think we get people back to work. You see or hear these stories about there’s businesses need more [workers]. Our goal is to get people back to work. I think there’s a lot of demand right now. I’d like to get that unemployment rate below 4 percent if we can,” he said.
“But it’s going to take some of these inhibitions being moved off and us being able to operate all of our industries. But there is demand in the economy for hiring and that’s a good thing — much different than it was a year ago.”
He added: “Our unemployment is what it is. It’s fine.”
Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orange County Democrat who ranks among the Legislature’s most ardent supporters of boosting benefits, begged to differ.
“They’re not fine,” she said in a telephone interview.
“What was most telling about the governor’s point is that he has always shifted blame for the unemployment system to his predecessor. This was a moment when it was clear to me that he actually does not care about the unemployment system,” Eskamani said.
“He’s only cared because it was political dangerous not to, but his statement today makes it pretty clear that a functioning unemployment system that carries people through rough times is not a priority for him,” she said.
Nevertheless, the Legislature has come under pressure to consider higher jobless benefits since COVID-19 hit and forced closure of businesses (at least temporarily) and massive unemployment. The Department of Economic Opportunity’s web portal for claims collapsed under the pressure.
“I don’t know where he’s coming from,” Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart, a cosponsor of a benefits hike, said of DeSantis.
“I do know this. We will have a vote in the Senate in Appropriations and it will pass. It will go to the floor in the Senate and I predict it will pass regardless of what the governor is saying. Our problem is, what’s going to happen on the House side,” she said.
“When the governor makes statements like that, it causes the House, perhaps, to have a hard pause.”
The problem was years in the making, beginning when Rick Scott was governor — the DeSantis predecessor that Eskamani spoke of.
That multimillionaire Republican, now Florida’s junior U.S. senator, who at every opportunity repeated that his top priority was jobs, persuaded the Legislature to decrease benefits and oversaw construction of the web portal that failed so spectacularly last year under the crush of COVID-related claims.
Florida’s unemployment system is the second-most friendly to business, according to the libertarian-inclined Tax Foundation.
As of Monday, the agency had paid more than 2.3 million claimants more than $25.9 billion since March 15 last year, according to its website.
The effect was to spread the pain to the employer class. Demand so depleted the state’s unemployment trust fund that businesses paying into it were hit with rate increases of 700 percent or more at the first of this year.
Legislation (SB 50) sitting on DeSantis’ desk would relieve them of that burden by shunting $1 billion from expanded online sales tax enforcement into the trust fund.
Meanwhile, Senate legislation would increase the maximum weekly benefit from the existing $275 to $375 and increase the maximum amount the unemployed can collect in one year from $6,325 to $8,625.
To Stewart, that’s “extremely reasonable. It doesn’t even get us to the middle of the pack for benefits. Three seventy-five puts us somewhere around 47th.”
That bill, SB 1906, enjoys bipartisan support, with sponsors including Stewart and GOP Sens. Joe Gruters of Sarasota and Charlotte counties, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman, and Jason Brodeur, of Seminole and Volusia counties. Brodeur is close to the governor and is trying to win him over.
“We will continue to work through the legislative process and hope we can convince the governor of the need,” Brodeur told the Phoenix via email.
In the House, DEO revamp legislation by Republican Chip LaMarca of Broward County (HB 1463) would require the department to host its benefits software on a cloud service that could be rapidly expanded in periods of high demand, to prevent any future meltdowns.
The department would need to review the platform every year.
The bill says nothing about benefits levels, but is set for debate on the House floor next week. Eskamani plans to offer amendment boosting benefits, she said.
“The House is really not taking any real leadership on actually improving the benefits,” Eskamani said. “My colleagues don’t want to even have the conversation.”
And those jobs the governor says are coming back?
“In my area of Central Florida, that’s certainly not true,” Stewart said, pointing to continued underemployment at theme parts and other tourist venues.