No unemployment benefits boost yet for the jobless as Legislature winds down; state Senate remains hopeful

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

The good news is that Floridians who lose their jobs might be able to count on the state’s unemployment compensation system not to melt down like it did at the height of COVID-related unemployment.

The bad news is that, with the Legislature due to adjourn next week, GOP lawmakers have refused to reassure those unemployed workers they will receive benefits sufficient to pay the rent and feed their families.

Florida has the stingiest unemployment benefits in the nation, based on a combination of 12 weeks and a weekly maximum benefit of $275, according to an analysis by States Newsroom, the Phoenix’s parent company.

There’s still a chance for increased benefits, thanks to legislation pending in the Florida Senate. But with the Legislature scheduled to adjourn next week, and Gov. Ron DeSantis against boosting benefits, the picture doesn’t look good.

That said, “I do not believe the unemployment issue is off the table yet,” Senate President Wilton Simpson told reporters this week.

Senate President Wilton Simpson supports increased benefits for the unemployed but acknowledges Gov. Ron DeSantis is against the idea.

But he noted: “The governor can veto anything we do. We appropriate and the governor decides whether to veto or not.”

The fixes to the Department of Economic Opportunity’s CONNECT benefits website come via legislation that the Senate approved unanimously on Thursday and sent to the governor.

The bill (HB 1463) had cleared the House the day before, after Democrats tried and failed to persuade the GOP majority to be more generous with the unemployed. The Senate approved the measure without debate.

Bipartisan legislation (SB 1906) still alive in the Senate would boost the maximum weekly benefit from $275 to $375 and increase the maximum amount the unemployed can collect in one year from $6,325 to $8,625.

Negotiations with the House over benefits levels “are ongoing,” Simpson said on Wednesday. “So, we’re going to let the process work to see where we end up on that.”

Aaron Bean, a Republican who represents Nassau and parts of Duval County, Senate cosponsor of the bill, said it would prevent repeats of the meltdown the Department of Economic Opportunity’s CONNECT unemployment compensation website experienced under overwhelming demand at the height of COVID-related job losses.

The bill requires the department to move the system to a cloud server where it can expand to meet demand.

“It was overwhelmed because it was just an ancient system,” he said of the old interface. The measure tells Floridians “no longer will we rely on servers that are bootstrapped together with duct tape in a back closet.”

The bill also promotes the department’s directors to secretary, which will give them more clout, including a seat on the Enterprise Florida board of directors, he said. That’s the state’s economic development arm.

The Legislature also has approved, and the governor has signed, a new law to make online retailers collect the state’s sales tax and deposit the roughly $1 billion in revenues into the state’s heavily depleted unemployment trust fund to finance benefits, relieving business of that burden.

Critics denounced the move as a tax on everyday Floridians to benefit businesses, but Simpson on Wednesday defended it.

“I believe it’s very stimulative to hiring practices, which will then solve the problem of not having to pay the unemployment compensation in the first place,” he said. It’s also fairer to brick-and-mortar businesses in the state, Simpson added.