City of Hialeah employees hand out unemployment applications last year to people in their vehicles in front of the John F. Kennedy Library. The city distributed the printed unemployment forms as people continued to have problems with access to the state of Florida’s unemployment website. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Focus on the Legislature

By Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix

The Florida Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to raise Florida’s meager unemployment payout to a maximum of $375 per week and extend the benefits period to a minimum 14 weeks, creating a faceoff against the state House and Gov. Ron DeSantis in the waning days of the legislative session.

The Republican House majority and the governor have spurned benefit increases thus far.

But in the Senate, the final vote on the bipartisan measure (SB 1906) was 40-0.

House Republicans earlier in the week voted down amendments to separate legislation that would have improved the state’s miserly benefits, with Republicans arguing that there are plenty of jobs for people who want to work and that boosting benefits might encourage otherwise able-bodied people to sit at home instead of finding a job.

The Senate bill would boost the maximum weekly benefit from $275 to $375 and increase the maximum amount the unemployed can collect in one year from $6,325 to $9,375. But no one could earn more on benefits than they would while on the job.

The number of weeks would go from 12 to 14, at a minimum, though the benefits period would extend to 25 weeks if the unemployment rate hits 10.5 percent.

“We’re hoping that, yes, the House should do it. Maybe we can attach it to something they love. Maybe we could somehow write the governor and put some love over there, too, and be able to bring this home,” said Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart of Orange County, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

“Whatever political will, whatever influence, whatever self-respect you have, that you think you can invoke and impress upon our House colleagues, please do so,” said Democrat Jason Pizzo of Miami-Dade County.

“The take-away is this: If they don’t do it, it’s on them,” he said.

The bill had Republican support as well, including Sen. Joe Gruters, who also chairs the Republican Party of Florida.

“This bill is just an effort to raise levels to meet the needs of Floridians,” said Republican co-sponsor Jason Brodeur of Seminole and Volusia counties.

“In the last decade, the cost of living has risen, the price of housing has exploded, and we need to respond,” Brodeur said.

Time to act is short — the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn one week from [last] Friday. But the horse-trading that typically happens during the waning days of session offers an opportunity to move the bill to passage.

Asked about the development later in the day, House Speaker Chris Sprowls didn’t rule out accepting the Senate package but said his chamber is more interested in improving the state’s job placement network.

“There’s a lot of jobs that are open out there that, for whatever reason, we’re not getting people back to work. Our focus should be getting our people back to work,” Sprowls told reporters during a briefing.

Earlier in the day, the Senate sent the governor legislation to fix the state’s unemployment compensation system, which collapsed under the massive demand at the height of COVID job losses, but did not address benefits levels.

Florida’s benefits rank among the lowest in the nation but DeSantis came out against a benefits increase on Monday [April 19], asserting: “Our unemployment is what it is. It’s fine.”

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