As the state maintains its scramble toward a functional unemployment system, Florida Democrats are continuing to press the Governor to expand those benefits.
Florida is in the bottom five in terms of unemployment payouts, allowing a maximum of $275 per week for up to 12 weeks.
Congress has approved an additional $600 on top of state benefits amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. But thousands of Florida applications remain backlogged as the state’s application website remains bogged down with an unprecedented number of new applications.
On a Monday morning Zoom conference, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the state needs to step up its efforts to ensure out-of-work Floridians are taken care of.
“We are here today to demand that Gov. [Ron] DeSantis extend the state’s appallingly low unemployment benefits,” Wasserman Schultz said.
“This is a system that has been broken for many years that the Governor had an opportunity, over the last two years, to fix proactively.”
Democrats argue the current state of emergency gives the Governor the authority to both raise the $275 per week cap on benefits and extend them beyond their 12-week limit.
“It’s clear now Gov. DeSantis has the authority to increase the number of weeks, to increase the amount of the state benefit,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor added. “But he’s refused to act.”
That’s not so, according to the Governor’s office.
“Under Chapter 252 Florida Statutes, the Governor may suspend any regulatory statute prescribing procedures for state business in order to cope with the emergency,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, a DeSantis spokesperson, in an email to POLITICO.
“Completely waiving the $275 per week unemployment cap exceeds this authority as the Legislature has set this specific amount in law.”
U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist and Lois Frankel and state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez also joined the call Monday. Rodríguez said he and other Democrats interpret the law differently.
“The Florida Statute gives the Governor during the emergency the power to suspend regulatory statutes, including caps on benefits, if it would hinder our ability to respond to the crisis,” Rodríguez said.
Crist — a former Governor — did in fact extend the cutoff period for those benefits during his tenure in 2010. He said he’s been reluctant to second-guess the current Governor but that the crisis demands additional action.
“I’ve said before there’s no time for Monday-morning quarterbacking and I stand by that,” Crist said.
“But when you see so many folks hurting, when you see hundreds of people risk their lives — literally — to stand in line for a paper application for unemployment, you need to leap to action.”
Wasserman Schultz argued that expanding those benefits does more than simply ameliorate the struggle of out-of-work Floridians. It can also prevent a compounding of government spending down the line.
“When this many people are forced to survive on Florida’s stingy jobless benefits, it adds untold weight to our social services,” Wasserman Schultz argued.
“If it gets worse — and if it’s not fixed, it likely will — it can also put costly pressures on our criminal justice system.”
Castor also called out Gov. Rick Scott, repeating Democrats’ previous assertions that the unemployment system is deliberately difficult to access.
“It was designed to fail,” Castor asserted.
Scott has denied those claims in the past. He did, however, threaten to hold up the recently-passed $2.2 trillion relief package over the federal $600-per-week increase in benefits. During Monday’s call, Castor called that action “contemptible.”
Frankel also did not hold back her feelings on the state’s unemployment system.
“Florida’s benefits are embarrassing. It’s a disgrace,” she said. “We’re asking people to stay home to stay safe. But we’ve got to put the finance behind that.”
Wasserman Schultz said if DeSantis does not act, then the Legislature should push to make adjustments via a Special Session. That aligns with previous calls from Democrats in the state Legislature.
“If [the Governor] doesn’t have the courage or the will to do it then he needs to step out of the way and let the Legislature do it,” Wasserman Schultz said.
“It should not take a Special Legislative Session for him to take the steps that he has the power to do already. But if so, that has to happen immediately.”