Opinion: Florida Legislature Fails to Fix Unemployment System

During the pandemic, the Florida Legislature has taken note of many issues with the state's unemployment insurance program, but the lawmakers haven't delivered a comprehensive solution yet.

(TNS) — Florida lawmakers certainly have short memories. Barely a year after the state’s unemployment system left hundreds of thousands of Floridians waiting weeks for benefits, the Legislature seemingly forgot the magnitude of the fiasco, letting the legislative session end without overhauling the state’s feeble program. Working Floridians deserve a reliable unemployment system, not lip service and broken promises.

As the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding last spring, Florida’s unemployment system was collapsing. Restaurants and businesses statewide closed their doors, prompting newly unemployed workers to turn to the state website to apply for unemployment insurance. The CONNECT system was already known to be unreliable and inadequate, so it was little surprise that it couldn’t manage the deluge of new applicants.

But this wasn’t just a website error. Weeks into the crisis, the system was still rejecting people on the (erroneous) basis that they didn’t qualify for benefits. Thousands couldn’t log in. Or when they did, they were prompted to reset their PIN by calling an understaffed hotline. It was a technical and customer service nightmare that left people angry, desperate and teetering on the financial edge.

Lawmakers were paying attention, at least then. Their offices were flooded with phone calls from people seeking help with their applications. They responded by forwarding names to the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment program. They demanded audits of the department and the resignation of its director. The cause of the crisis was not lost on anyone. “The system never should have been that hard to deal with in the first place,” said Sen. Joe Gruters, R- Sarasota.

So how did legislators remedy this calamity? The state budget includes $56 million to resolve backlogged claims issues. That’s not an investment in improving the system overall. The money will be used to review claims from last year to ensure they complied with state and federal laws and even to resolve some that are still pending. And in what feels like a second-rate consolation prize, lawmakers also passed a bill to begin the work of modernizing and upgrading CONNECT, but that is expected to take years.

Here’s what they did not do:

  • Increase the maximum weekly benefit of $275, which ranks among the lowest in the nation. The Senate tried, but House Republican leaders and Gov. Ron DeSantis opposed the move.
  • Change the law to allow benefits to start the date people lose their jobs, instead of after they apply and wait another required week.
  • Eliminate a Gov. Rick Scott-era rule that encouraged businesses to keep people on their payrolls at drastically reduced rates so the employees wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. Even Gov. DeSantis called it a “perverse incentive.”

Some of Florida’s long-standing rules were waived during the pandemic. So policymakers have all the data they should need to abandon these outdated policies and better align the state’s unemployment system with the needs and features of the modern workforce. But they punted.

The pandemic was an outsized lesson in what happens when you dismantle the safety net. (Hint: It doesn’t work when people need it.) There will be another recession or some other future event that drives up unemployment, so this problem isn’t going away no matter how much legislators would like to forget it. They have vowed to get more done next year to improve Florida’s unemployment system. But by then, the urgency will have faded even further from their memories.

©2021 Tampa Bay Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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