An effort to increase Florida’s much-criticized unemployment benefits, boosting the amounts and lengths of payments, continued to advance Thursday in the state Senate.
Pointing to the massive jump in unemployment last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a revised proposal (SB 1906) that would increase the maximum amount of unemployment benefits to $375 a week.
Currently, benefits range from $32 to $275 a week, among the lowest amounts in the nation. The state cut benefits in 2011 to blunt a major increase in unemployment taxes on businesses.
“We’re a much more modern society than when this (unemployment) statute was first written,” said Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican sponsoring the bill. “We've done some great things to bolster our (unemployment) trust fund.”
Brodeur’s bill underwent changes, including expanding the number of weeks that benefits would be available and refining a “work search” requirement in which people on unemployment must reach out to five prospective employers each week. The House does not have an identical bill.
Last spring, as the pandemic devastated businesses in Florida, more than 1 million people were quickly put out of work. They faced troubles with the state’s CONNECT online unemployment system, which largely crashed, and with the amounts of benefits.
“It was a tough time. I think we all remember that. And I think that's why you see us all coming together to fight so hard to make sure that we do everything we can,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said.
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 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.
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.
The number of weeks is among the fewest offered by any state.
Florida’s number of weeks went from 12 to 19 weeks this year because the 2020 third-quarter jobless average was 8.6 percent.
Without changes, the number of weeks could revert to 12 next year if current unemployment conditions hold or improve through the end of September.
“The bill does a lot of good things to increase the benefits for unemployed Floridians, who are still desperately in need of relief,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “My district represents heavily tourism (workers). So, you know, we get a lot of phone calls in my office.”
Republicans expressed concerns that expanding benefits could affect the state’s Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, which receives money from a tax on businesses.
A bill before Gov. Ron DeSantis (SB 50) would replenish the trust fund, which became depleted during the pandemic. The bill would use money generated by requiring out-of-state retailers to collect and remit sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians.
Earlier Thursday, the Appropriations Committee approved a bill (SB 1948), sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, that would move away from CONNECT to an upgraded online unemployment system. The House Commerce Committee approved a similar bill (HB 1463) on Wednesday.