Despite opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida senators plowed ahead Thursday with a proposal to increase state unemployment benefits, which are among the lowest in the nation.
The Senate voted 40-0 to approve a bill (SB 1906) that would increase maximum weekly payments from $275 to $375 and add more weeks in which benefits would be available. The vote came days after DeSantis voiced opposition and the House rejected efforts to boost benefits.
“This is a good moment for us,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said. “We've all spent many, many hours and days fielding those calls from our constituents who are struggling with the unemployment system. And I want to thank our partners here in the Senate for hearing the cries of our constituents and having the courage —- and President (Wilton)Simpson and his leadership team for sticking to their guns and doing an increase of benefits.”
Bill sponsor Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said the need to make changes became apparent over the past year after massive job losses during the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to spurring calls for increased benefits, a flood of claims overwhelmed the state’s CONNECT online unemployment system.
“This bill is just an effort to raise levels to meet the needs of Floridians in the last decade,” Brodeur said. “The cost of living has risen, the price of housing has exploded, and we need to respond.”
The prospects for the bill’s success remains dubious, as House Republicans on Tuesday rejected Democratic proposals to increase benefits. Echoing DeSantis, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Thursday the House’s focus is on getting people back to work.
“We have a workforce out there, some of whom are not back to work. We need to be focusing on getting them back to work,” Sprowls told reporters. “We also have to realize that we have a broken workforce system, you know, and I don't mean just the CONNECT system. We all can agree that the system didn't work. But I mean, the actual, you know, boots on the ground. The network of individuals and systems that are supposed to be designed to help someone who wants to find a job and wants to find meaningful work to find that job inside their community.”
DeSantis last Friday voiced opposition to increasing benefits during an appearance in Lakeland.
“You see or hear the stories, there’s businesses (that) need more. You know, our goal is to get people back to work. I think there's a lot of demand right now,” DeSantis said. “I’d like to get that unemployment rate below 4 percent if we can. 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.”
Asked Wednesday about the governor’s opposition, Simpson, R-Trilby, replied, “We're going to let the process work to see where we end up on that.”
Simpson then acknowledged, “The governor can veto anything we do.”
The bill is among several changes the Legislature is considering for the unemployment system. Budget negotiators are looking at spending up to $36 million to start the process of revamping CONNECT with a cloud-based system.
Meanwhile, Brodeur’s bill would scale back a “work search” requirement that currently says people on unemployment must reach out to five prospective employers each week.
The bill calls for the number of job searches to drop to three a week for most people and to two a week for people living in counties with fewer than 75,000 residents.
The bill also would set at 14 the number of weeks benefits would be offered when the unemployment rate is at or below 5 percent. An extra week would be added for each 0.5 percentage point above 5 percent in the third quarter of a calendar year.
Current law sets the number of weeks at 12 when unemployment is at or below 5 percent, with an additional week added for each 0.5 percentage point above 5 percent in the third quarter of a calendar year.
A concern of House Republicans has been that an increase in benefits could result in a need to further increase the amounts of money businesses would have to contribute to the state’s unemployment compensation trust fund. Similar reasoning was used when benefits were cut in 2011 to blunt a major increase in unemployment taxes on businesses.
Late Monday, DeSantis signed into law a bill to require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians. Many businesses, such as Amazon, that have a physical footprint in the state already do so. The requirement is projected to generate up to $1 billion a year, and the money will initially be used to replenish the unemployment trust fund, which has become depleted during the past year.
Before the pandemic, businesses paid $7 per employee in unemployment taxes. The rate went to $49 this year and could have jumped to $87 without the online-tax law.
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