Unemployment Insurance In Florida
Fixing Unemployment Insurance is about Economic Freedom
Let’s fix our broken system
Unemployed Floridians may not be making headlines anymore, but the mismanagement, abuse, and fraud at the Department of Economic Opportunity are still very much present. This problem — the one that caused a bipartisan uproar in 2020 — has never been fixed.
- More than 3 million Floridians have filed more than 6 million individual unemployment claims since the COVID-19 pandemic struck Florida in March 2020.
- According to the Department of Economic Opportunity dashboard, more than 100,000 Floridians have not been paid unemployment benefits despite their claims being verified.
- In December 2021, there were still more than 21,000 applicants who were stuck in the claim verification queue. According to DEO employees we’ve spoken to, these numbers are an undercount: they leave out an untold number of would-be applicants who have never been able to file a claim.
UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE IS A STATE PROGRAM, NOT FEDERAL
Let’s be clear: in the United States, our unemployment insurance system is run by the states, not by the Federal government. If you want a functioning unemployment insurance system, you need leadership that prioritizes state agencies.
- The Federal government did step up in 2020. The CARES Act created the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefit, which added an extra $300/week to state unemployment benefits. Many Floridians have said that they avoided financial ruin because of this. Unfortunately, Governor DeSantis ended this program prematurely, cutting it off in June of this year.
FIXING UNEMPLOYMENT IS ABOUT ECONOMIC FREEDOM
- Governor DeSantis likes to talk a lot about freedom. And Floridians value economic freedom. But there are thousands of Floridians the Governor has neglected. The Floridians who have seen their economic freedom turn into a kind of hostage situation.
- These are the hardworking, everyday Floridians who are being held hostage as they wait for our state to fix our unemployment system.
- Floridians who have worked and paid into the unemployment system their whole careers deserve an updated and reliable system that helps them pay their bills while they get back on their feet and back to work.
THE UNEMPLOYMENT SYSTEM HAS BEEN BROKEN FOR A WHILE.
- We know the roots of this problem date back to the Rick Scott administration. But let’s be clear: Governor DeSantis has had 3 years to fix what he inherited, and it is still not working.
- Governor DeSantis could have called a Special Session anytime in 2020 after it was clear just how broken our unemployment insurance program was. He declined to do so.
- Although COVID-19 put our unemployment insurance program in the spotlight, the program has been broken for years. The program was significantly cut in 2011 by the state legislature and former governor Rick Scott, leaving Florida drastically unprepared for an economic crisis. As a result, Florida’s UI program ranks at or near the bottom in national rankings.
- 2011 was also when the Legislature and governor introduced our current, non-functioning website. It was designed on an out-of-date programming language, and frankly, it was designed to fail. It needs to go, so we can do better for each other.
- And let’s remember: the problems go back even further. Florida’s maximum weekly benefit is $275/week: one of the lowest in the nation. The last time Florida updated the maximum weekly benefit was in 1998. That must change.
GOVERNOR DESANTIS THINKS THE SYSTEM IS FINE. IT’S STILL BROKEN.
- Remember: on April 16, 2021, the Governor said, “Our unemployment is what it is. It’s fine.” Well, no, Governor. It’s not fine.
- It’s not fine for the thousands of out-of-work Floridians who are still waiting for their claims to be processed, month after month, some even more than a year.
- It’s not fine for the thousands of hardworking Floridians who have destroyed their savings, had their credit ruined, their cars taken, and in some cases have become homeless.
- It’s not fine when the Governor’s agency is riddled with reports of fraud, stolen identities, faulty overpayment claims, abuse, and outright mismanagement of Federal funds.
- It’s not fine when our state employees — people working in the Department of Economic Opportunity — have told us the system is still broken. That all they can do is sit on the phone with people and cry with them.
- We must do better. This system is broken. We need to fix it so Floridians can get back to their lives.
WHAT WE CAN DO TO FIX THIS SYSTEM:
- Florida’s UI benefit levels are among the lowest in the country. Florida both limits the maximum amount of UI assistance that unemployed workers can receive to $275 a week and restricts UI assistance to only 25% of the total wages in a worker’s base period, not to exceed $6,325 in a benefit year. But not everyone gets the maximum. On average, most workers in Florida only receive about $254 a week, which is not enough to pay rent and utilities, much less to meet a family’s other basic needs like food, transportation, and childcare while the unemployed person finds another job.
- Increase the maximum weekly benefit rate to at least match Florida’s minimum wage and reform the formula it uses to restrict the amount of assistance that a worker can receive in a benefit year.
- Reduce the monetary eligibility requirement of $3,400 total wages in the base period and adopt an “alternative base period,” to benefit low-wage and seasonal workers. Allowing workers to use an alternative base period (ABP) that looks at more recent earnings would make sure more workers qualify for the benefits they deserve. Workers in Florida must have earned a minimum of $3,400 in the base period, which is the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters, to be eligible for UI. Because that $3,400 must have been earned recently to qualify as a wage credit, claimants who did not make much money are ineligible for UI.
- Allow benefits to be paid retroactively to the date of job loss. Currently, eligibility for UI benefits is retroactive to the date of the application instead of to the date of job loss. This is unfair to workers who prioritize looking for work after losing a job—instead of filing for benefits—as well as those who are experiencing difficulty applying for benefits.
- Florida should increase the minimum duration of benefits from 12 to 26 weeks and eliminate the formula that ties receipt of benefits to statewide unemployment rates. For decades, Florida provided up to 26 weeks of UI assistance for out-of-work Floridians. Then in 2011, Governor Rick Scott introduced a sliding scale that ties the length of UI benefits to the statewide unemployment rate. In other words, if the state has low unemployment, then benefits are as short as 12 weeks. Workers with long careers in one field or unique skillsets are at a disadvantage because there are fewer jobs and less openings. The current structure causes valuable and skilled employees to leave the state, or the area, in search of new employment.
- Florida’s UI recipiency rate, which measures the proportion of jobless workers who get benefits, is the worst in the country. Florida should increase the percentage of eligible people receiving UI benefits (8.9%) to at least the national average recipiency rate (37%). Barriers to receiving benefits, like a broken online system and pointless red tape policies that trip up applicants, must be eliminated.
- Fix the CONNECT system. Florida’s online UI portal, called CONNECT, is antiquated and inadequate for filing claims in times of low unemployment, much less when Florida experiences an economic crisis such as COVID-19. Making CONNECT a system that works in good times and in bad for Floridians should be a priority for the state and the governor. The Florida legislature passed HB 1463 in April 2021, which required DEO to implement an integrated, modular system hosted in cloud service, which is intended to fix DEO’s website. However, Floridians are still working with the old system. The time is now to fix CONNECT.
- Allow claimants to continue to file claims both electronically and by paper after the pandemic is over. Not all Floridians have access to technology to file UI claims electronically. Florida should ensure access for all claimants, regardless of the barriers they may face to filing for benefits.
- Permanently repeal the waiting week.
Florida forces claimants to wait a week before they can start getting UI assistance (called the waiting week) and does not pay them for that week, the “wait week,” even though they satisfy all requirements for eligibility. Wait weeks are archaic limitations on receipt of assistance that were adopted when states still processed UI claims manually.
- Expand the definition of “good cause.”
Fairness demands flexibility to ensure that Floridians who miss reporting deadlines, leave or refuse work due to health and safety concerns, or care for a family member or partner, can claim good cause without suffering the loss of benefits.
- Level the playing field between different industries. All workers should have the protections offered by UI. Florida should do away with exemptions for employers that put their workers at a disadvantage.
- Modernize UI to match the current workforce trends. Update UI eligibility to include “gig” workers and independent contractors. The workforce is changing and employers are hiring more W9 contract employees than ever before because they don’t want to pay benefits. We need to modernize Florida UI so these workers have access to the program when they lose employment through no fault of their own.