The COVID-19 pandemic is creating unprecedented demands for help on virtually every government service in Florida. At the top of the list is the state unemployment assistance program, which is widely regarded as one of the stingiest of any state.
Florida's jobless benefits program is run by the Department of Economic Opportunity. As the unemployment rate dropped to an all time low of in 2.8% in January, the amount of money in the fund had grown to more than $4 billion. In the Florida Senate, Republican Rob Bradley discussed the fund's solvency.
"Our balance as of September. 30, 2019, is over $4 billio, so we are in a very, very strong financial position. I am quite confident and comfortable that the state is well prepared," Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, said recently.
The system, known as CONNECT, has been under sustained attack over the past decade by groups that represent workers, for not being user friendly and for the low benefits paid to laid off workers.
"Number one, the benefits can be increased. We have been at between 250 and 275 dollars a week, max, for decades. They need to eliminate the one week waiting period. Right now, there's a one week waiting period for no reason. There are billions of dollars sitting in the fund right now for unemployment insurance," said longtime AFLCIO lobbyist Rich Templin.
The maximum benefit a worker can collect is $3300. That's $275 a week for a maximum of 12 weeks. The 12-week period is the lowest of any state and the $275 benefit is one of the lowest in the country.
To be eligible for benefits, workers in Florida must prove they are actively seeking work, but Governor Ron DeSantis has said that requirement should be lifted during the current crisis. Democratic Senator Gary Farmer of Lighthouse Point wants to go further.
"I think we need to start giving very careful thought to things we can do to relieve stress on ordinary Floridians -- working Floridians -- and I think we need to consider things like waiver of Medicaid eligibility, and waiver of reemployment search requirements for unemployment benefits. We are encouraging people to self isolate and to quarantine, and to require them to go out and search for jobs in order to be eligibility for unemployment benefits, I don't think is consistent with that," he said.
THe economic shutdown has already put extreme stress on the hospitality and tourism industries. Even the paltry benefits Florida offers are seen as a crucial lifeline for millions of Floridians who need to survive. In the most recent one week period, DEO said its reemployment assistance hot line got 130,000 calls, or more than five times the normal weekly amount.