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State senators move to increase unemployment benefits

FILE - Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s unemployment payments, among the lowest in the nation, would increase by up to $100 a week under a measure approved Monday by a Senate committee.

The proposal (SB 1906), which cleared the Commerce and Tourism Committee, would lead to a range of unemployment benefits of $100 to $375 a week. That would be up from the current range of $32 to $275 a week.

Sponsor Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, called his proposal a “good starting point” for talks, while warning about further raising a tax that businesses pay to fund the unemployment system.

“When we talk about the money that’s available to give to the unemployed, it comes from the businesses themselves,” Brodeur said. “And if we ask too much of those businesses, or more than they can afford, money that they might have used to hire someone now has to go to taxes that goes to the trust fund that goes right back to who they might have hired anyway.”

The proposal comes after the unemployment system was inundated with claims last spring because of job losses early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The claims caused the state’s CONNECT online system to largely crash, while also spurring calls to increase benefit amounts.

Brodeur’s bill, which doesn’t have an identical House version, was amended by the Senate committee to reduce to three weeks a “work search” requirement that says people on unemployment must reach out to five prospective employers each week.

“I’m hopeful that it goes further,” Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, said. “You know there’s a lot of room to take this further. And I just hope that once we get past this and we can fix Florida’s broken unemployment system, that we don’t get to this point again, because for some of us, it was a traumatic summer.”

The Republican-dominated committee rejected in voice votes other amendments, including a proposal that sought to increase weekly benefits to $500 and make more people eligible for benefits. Democrats also said the increase should be tied to increases in the state’s minimum wage.

“We wouldn’t line-item any other costs to any other business or entity we’re running at the same dollar amount in 2021 as we would in 2026,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said. “So, we should do the same for people’s lives with food and housing security.”

Florida voters in November approved a constitutional amendment that will incrementally increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2026.

During the pandemic, state unemployment benefits have been supplemented by federal aid.

While the Senate committee vote Monday was a first step in increasing state benefits, it is unclear whether the House would go along.

Asked Friday about the prospect of raising weekly benefits, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the House is taking “a holistic look at our workforce.”

“Unemployment was extremely high during the lockdowns and the pandemics,” Sprowls said. “We have rolled out robust bills that do deal with getting people back into the workforce. And that has been our focus.”

Two House bills (HB 207 and HB 1617) filed by Democrats, both seeking to raise the weekly maximum benefit to $500, have not been heard in committees.

An increase in state benefits could increase employer contributions to the unemployment trust fund, but state economists have not projected the impact of Brodeur’s bill.

Democrats also are calling for an increase in the number of weeks of eligibility. State law holds the number of weeks at 12 when unemployment is at or below 5%, with an additional week added for each 0.5 percentage point above 5% in the third quarter of a calendar year.

Florida’s number of weeks went from 12 to 19 weeks this year because the 2020 third-quarter jobless average was 8.6%.

The number of weeks, which is not addressed in the Senate bill, could revert to 12 next year if current unemployment conditions hold or improve through the end of September.

In a report released Friday, the state’s unemployment rate dipped from 4.8% in January to 4.7% in February.

The Senate is considering Brodeur’s proposal after Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, reached a deal that would require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on items sold to Floridians and remit the taxes to the state.

The money would replenish the state’s depleted unemployment trust fund and help shield businesses from higher unemployment taxes. The Senate voted 30-10 on Friday to approve the plan (SB 50),

The House version of the plan (HB 15) was approved Monday by the House Commerce Committee.


About the Author:

Jim is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics.