U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist are calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to use his executive authority to increase the amount of benefits unemployed Floridians can receive and the time frame for which they can receive them.
The two members of Congress discussed the issue in a press call Wednesday outlining how DeSantis could use executive powers to change a system that would otherwise require legislative action.
Because the state of Florida is under a declared state of emergency, DeSantis’ executive authority is broad. As Castor pointed out, he’s already used that increase authority to mandate waivers in the unemployment claims process regarding job hunting.
Under Florida’s normal system, Floridians seeking benefits had to document at least five attempts to find employment per week in order to claim their weekly benefit. DeSantis’ order did away with that requirement as Floridians lack access to new jobs because so many businesses are shut down or operating at reduced capacity.
“They’ve already used their emergency authorities to make certain waivers, Castor said. “There’s no difference really … This is a crisis. It is an emergency. That’s why the emergency authorities are there.”
Castor and Crist also called on DeSantis to take swift and bold action to fix the state’s failing unemployment claims system. The website is crashing under the weight of a massive influx in claims related to job losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crist said he’s sending a letter to Department of Economic Opportunity head Ken Lawson recommending a mobile app, developed by a reputable tech company, to offer a way for benefit-seekers to apply from their phones or tablets.
Benefits-seekers are finding it near impossible to file claims online and their phone calls to help centers are not being answered or dropped when they are.
Both Castor and Crist praised DeSantis for the action he has taken, which is to re-direct staff from other departments to assist with the unemployment crisis and allowed the Department of Economic Opportunity to move forward with paper applications for those unable to access the online system.
However, they complained the actions were not enough and came too late.
“They should have acted in a swifter fashion,” Castor said.
Crist took it further.
“What’s wrong with us? We hav to have greater compassion and empathy,” Crist demanded.
The state of Florida’s unemployment benefits are among the lowest in the nation. The state provides just $275 a week, maximum, for out-of-work Floridians. Those benefits are only available for 12 weeks.
According to Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, fewer than half of all unemployed Floridians find work before their benefits run out. Worse, in 2011 and 2012, Evermore said fewer than 9% of unemployed workers actually received benefits.
The reason for that? The state’s system was poorly designed to be restrictive to applicants. That system is still in place.
There is some hope for unemployed residents. The federal CARES Act provides $600 a week in additional benefits for unemployed workers, making the maximum benefit for Floridians $875 a week.
But without a reasonable system in place to access those benefits, struggling Floridians are still going without.
“These people need this money,” Crist said. “Getting by on $275 and $600 from the feds is simply not enough.”
Asked whether that combined weekly benefit is actually sufficient — it’s the equivalent of weekly earnings of someone making $45,500 a year, only $7,000 less than the current median household income in Florida — Castor described extraordinary times that call for increased support.
And even with the increased benefits, some workers who don’t qualify for state benefits are having trouble accessing federal benefits. Part-time and gig workers don’t qualify for Florida’s unemployment benefits, but they have to go through the state’s system, in order to access the federal benefits for which they are eligible.
Castor said she shares in those workers’ frustration and agreed Florida’s system doesn’t currently consider those individuals. However, the CARES Act funding directs money to states to update technology infrastructure to create a work-around.
Evermore further explained that federal guidance has been handed down to states to fix the loophole and that solutions are on the way.
The federal benefit is retroactive. So Floridians having trouble accessing funds now will receive the money once their claim is approved, meaning the July 31 deadline on federal relief won’t affect the overall amount of assistance applicants will ultimately receive. Florida benefits are not retroactive, so the lost time filing claims is costing unemployed workers at the state level.