State House passes unemployment system revamp, but no boost in stingy benefits for the jobless

State Rep. Omari Hardy debates unemployment benefits on the House floor on April 21, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

The Florida House united Wednesday around legislation designed to repair the state’s disastrous failure of the unemployment benefits system, but that does nothing to increase the state’s meager benefits for the jobless.

Following impassioned pleas this week by Democrats to boost payments and extend eligibility, members of that caucus begrudgingly voted for the bill, HB  1463. The final vote was 118-0.

The bill still needs approval by the Senate. And separate similar legislation (SB 1948) related to unemployment is pending in that chamber.

Republicans, including bill sponsor Chip LaMarca of Broward County, pushed back against complaints the system pays too little to live on and for too short a time. The nonprofit States Newsroom last year ranked Florida dead last in unemployment benefits in the nation with its combination of just 12 weeks and a maximum weekly benefit of $275.

On the House floor, LaMarca inflated the meager benefits situation in Florida by counting federal COVID emergency assistance dollars for jobless workers in the pandemic. LaMarca then claimed the average payout between April 2020 and April 2021 actually was $563.

However, those federal benefits are not designed to last forever, and Florida will be left the stingiest unemployment benefits in the country.

“Whether they were Donald Dollars or Biden Bucks, they were certainly helpful. And that is exactly what our federal safety net is there for,” LaMarca said. “So, right, wrong, or indifferent, the amount or duration of benefits is not what this very good infrastructure bill is about. This bill fixes a broken system.”

The bill reorganizes the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and requires it to host its benefits software on a cloud service capable of expansion against a repeat of the systems failure that accompanied unprecedented demand from the jobless last year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has come out against any increase in benefits, but bipartisan legislation (SB 1906) still pending in the Senate would boost both weekly benefits. One of its GOP co-sponsors, Sen. Jason Brodeur of Seminole and Volusia counties, temporarily postponed debate on it on Wednesday.

He explained via email that the move didn’t signal the item was in trouble. “Nope. Just working on amendments. We have time,” Brodeur wrote. The annual legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on April 30.

During Wednesday’s debate, Democrats remained bitter about Republican arguments the day before that there are plenty of jobs on offer in their home districts, suggesting people were too lazy to work.

“There is a mythology of poor people. There is a mythology of people who have fallen on hard times, who have basically had bad luck. And that mythology says that if you help them, they won’t help themselves,” said Democratic Rep. Omari Hardy of Palm Beach County.

“I can tell you, nobody I know is sitting at home collecting an unemployment check and turning down opportunities for good work because of the check they’re getting from the state of Florida,” he continued.

“I will be voting for this bill. I just wish there were more in it for working class people, but there’s something to the adage that you should live to fight another day.”

Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orange County called the bill “a baby step in creating more accountability at DEO, specifically around unemployment. But I regret to say that a baby step is not enough” given the “paltry at best” benefits available.

“I see this as a missed opportunity,” Smith said.