Labor unions are calling on Governor Ron DeSantis to fix Florida’s unemployment system before a wave of joblessness hits the state.
In a telephone press conference on Thursday, the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union and Unite Here, which combined represent more than a million workers and their families in Florida, say the cumbersome system has been crashing as workers race to apply for benefits. The state’s unemployment office received about 200,000 inquiries just last week.
And even before the COVID-19 coronavirus began spreading across Florida and shutting down businesses, only a third of eligible workers successfully navigated the system to get benefits.
“We have worked with the [Florida] Department of Economic Opportunity, with Republicans and Democrats to fix this for over a decade. We have been warning this would happen, this economic collapse would happen,” said Rich Templin, public policy director for the Florida AFL-CIO. “Now it’s here.”
The groups blamed Sen. Rick Scott for causing the problems when he changed the system as governor following the 2008 recession.
At the time, Templin said the state had about $4 billion and was in danger of running out of money. Rather than require businesses to pay more to replenish coffers, Templin said the state changed the rules, putting the burden on employees to prove they were eligible, rather than requiring employers to prove workers did not qualify.
“What they did was change the system to make it nearly impossible for workers to access any benefits,” he said.
Scott was part of a group of Republicans on Wednesday who objected to increasing weekly benefits to $600 - Florida benefits are now capped at $275 a week - in the $2 trillion package. Scott said the additional money would be an incentive not to work.
“We’re not lazy. We just got laid off,” said Maxine Jackson, a housekeeper at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, who was one of three laid off workers included in the briefing.
Florida also ranks among the lowest states in the country for the length of time it provides benefits - just 12 weeks. Most states provide 26 weeks, Templin said. The federal relief package may extend the period by 13 weeks. But to qualify, he said, workers will have to successfully complete a Florida application first.
The unions have started a petition to gather signatures at www.flworkersneedrelief.com.