State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez testified Tuesday in Washington before the Senate Finance Committee where he blasted Florida’s recent difficulties with paying unemployment benefits.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity faced severe struggles because of the surge in unemployment applications during the COVID-19 crisis.
“For hundreds of thousands of Floridians, DEO’s system was inaccessible for at least the first half of the crisis, punctuated by unmet, ever-changing goals and seemingly never-ending mishaps,” explained Rodríguez, a Democrat from Miami.
In testimony earlier Tuesday, U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia noted that “state unemployment offices were overwhelmed” in responding to the effects of the pandemic.
Florida has paid more than $4.6 billion in unemployment claims, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The numbers as of Sunday show more than 2.3 million claims being sent to the state since March 15. Just over half of those claimants have been paid state or federal benefits. Nearly 500,000 have been deemed ineligible.
Tuesday’s Senate hearing was held to weigh whether the $600 per week federal unemployment assistance program should be extended as America continues dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Rodríguez was part of a panel discussing the unemployment assistance impact on several localities throughout the country.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon specifically asked Rodríguez what the state had done to prepare for a surge in applications after DeSantis was warned during his 2018 transition about possible threats to the system.
“In the 14 months between when Gov. DeSantis was warned of the system’s flaws and the arrival of the pandemic, what was done to prevent the system’s failure, if anything?” Wyden asked.
“The short answer is ‘nothing,'” Rodríguez said. “On top of design flaws coming into the crisis, Florida’s system continues to be slow, unreliable and inept in general.”
Wyden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have put forward a request for the U.S. Labor Department Inspector General to review Florida’s unemployment response. DeSantis called that inquiry in the GOP-run state an example of “partisan politics.”
“This experience should serve as a lesson to other states,” Rodríguez added.
“States that shrink, starve and ignore their unemployment system one day may have their state legislators delivering such remarks. Federal oversight is needed over states’ unemployment systems, along with resources to modernize their infrastructure. CARES Act programs ought to remain in place until recovery has reached all sectors.”
As to the question of whether CARES Act benefits should be extended, Rodríguez worried about the effect on his South Florida district should the GOP-controlled Senate stall further recovery funds.
“I fear it would set us back in our path to recovery.”