Labor groups and Florida Democrats are demanding changes to unemployment

Screenshot via Florida Department of Economic Opportunity/Facebook
Florida needs a more accessible unemployment-compensation system, with increased benefits, so people out of work because of the novel coronavirus can get assistance they need, labor leaders and Democrats said Thursday.

In a conference call, union representatives and workers warned of a “massive wave of unemployment” hitting the state as they called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to expand jobless benefits.

Also, acknowledging assistance coming from a $2.2 trillion stimulus package approved Wednesday by the U.S. Senate and expected to go before the U.S. House on Friday, officials from the Florida AFL-CIO, AFSCME Florida and SEIU pointed to Florida’s historically troubled online unemployment-compensation system as an impediment to accessing the aid.

“You still have to go through the Florida unemployment process in order to access those (federal) benefits,” Wendi Walsh, secretary of UNITE HERE Local 355 in South Florida, said. “And if the system is broken, that means that not only you won’t get the Florida benefits, but you’re not going to get the federal benefits either. And people are desperate to receive those benefits right away.”

Nearly all of the Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation made similar arguments in a letter to DeSantis on Thursday.

“We continue to hear from constituents that the website where all applications must be completed continues to malfunction making it extremely difficult for individuals to even file a claim for unemployment benefits,” the letter said.

Tiffany Vause, a spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity, which handles the state’s jobless benefits, issued a statement Thursday asking Floridians to be patient as the agency works to increase its services, from expanding hours of call centers to adding staff through reassigning 35 employees and planning to hire another 100 statewide.

“We have received more than 325 applications and have more than 70 interviews scheduled this week,” Vause said in the statement.

Florida offers some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the country, providing up to $275 a week for 12 weeks.

The federal stimulus bill is slated to provide an additional $600 a week, for four months, to people who qualify.

With many businesses at least temporarily shutting down during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Labor Department announced Thursday that 3.28 million jobless claims had been filed during the week that ended Sunday, with just a little more than 74,000 from Floridians.

The week before, Florida received 6,463 applications. So far this week, there have been 103,298 applications.

The state’s unemployment numbers for February will be released Friday, but they will not reflect the economic upheaval that has hit the state this month.

The federal bill also is expected to offer tax provisions to help large companies affected by the pandemic cover wages and would forgive aspects of some bridge loans for small companies that keep workers on the books. It also is slated to offer incentives to businesses that rehire laid-off workers.

Vause noted that the state is working with a vendor to expand the capacity of the online unemployment system.

“With this unprecedented event in our state, we are asking everyone to have continued patience,” Vause said. “If you have trouble filing your claim, please try again later. With the increased volume in users, our system is moving slower.”

“It’s going to be a homeless crisis,” she added. “It’s going to be a children without food crisis.”

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Walsh estimated that efforts designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 —- from closing bars and entertainment venues to limiting access to vacation destinations such as the Florida Keys —- will put about 90 percent of the hospitality industry out of work, turning the health-care crisis into an economic crisis.

“It’s going to be a homeless crisis,” she added. “It’s going to be a children without food crisis.”

DeSantis signed an executive order Tuesday that removed a requirement for people seeking benefits to apply for five jobs a week or to submit applications with Employ Florida.

“Those are positive first steps, but those are not the biggest problems of eligibility that we’re looking at,” said Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO. “The governor needs to do a lot more.”

Templin pointed to a burdensome unemployment application process enacted nearly a decade ago under former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, that has resulted in more than two-thirds of applicants failing to qualify.

After voting for the federal stimulus package on Wednesday, Scott issued a statement that said he favored parts of measure that would do such things as help small business, provide funding for health-care workers and expand testing for the virus. He also supported using the existing unemployment Insurance program, which employers paid into “as the best and most direct way of getting money to workers who have been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours reduced.”

However, Scott expressed a “significant reservation” with part of the bill that he said could result in the jobless benefits encouraging people not to quickly return to work.

“Senate Democrats refused to amend the legislation to prevent unemployment insurance benefits from exceeding a worker’s previous salary,” Scott said in the statement. “When this crisis is over, we want everyone to go back into the workforce and we should not be creating a perverse incentive not to work. Put more simply —- using taxpayer dollars to pay people more to not work than they would receive if they were back on the job is just silly. This will significantly hamper our economic recovery.”

Templin said Scott used similar rhetoric “when he gutted the unemployment system.”

In a letter to DeSantis, the labor groups called for him to waive a one-week waiting period before people can start to collect benefits; expand the number of weeks benefits are available from 12; consider workers’ most-recent quarter of earnings when calculating potential benefits as a way to help seasonal workers; and change eligibility requirements that currently include filling out an application that can take several hours.

Earlier this year, Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson was looking to downsize as claims slowed with unemployment at 2.8 percent, DeSantis noted Wednesday. But all of that has changed quickly.

“Just think about what a different world that was where the agency was overstaffed,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “Now we’re in a different situation. I’ve given him the go-ahead to ramp things up,”

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