Hardworking everyday Floridians have brought Florida’s economy roaring back from the economic recession we felt at the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020. From the travel, hospitality, and tourist industry to the agriculture and seafood sectors, and the office workers in our state’s biotech and technology sector, Florida’s workers are the backbone of our state’s economic recovery. But too many hardworking Floridians are not reaping the rewards of this recovery. And a key piece of the worker safety net is still broken: the unemployment system which is meant to equip Floridians with the tools to get through unavoidable layoffs. What many workers remember from that time period was the frustration with the state’s badly designed web portal (DeSantis called it “a jalopy”), but the problems with the system go deeper and farther back than that.
Remember: Florida’s unemployment insurance system (rebranded as “re-employment benefits” a few years ago), is a classic piece of the worker safety net. Our state first put it in place during the New Deal era when Florida’s workers were going through an earlier catastrophic economic downturn. And ever since then, when state lawmakers met, they continually made improvements: adding safeguards, expanding coverage, and importantly, increasing the maximum benefit amount to keep pace with inflation. Until one year they didn’t. The last year that the Florida Legislature adjusted the maximum weekly benefit for temporarily unemployed workers was 1998. And weekly benefits have been capped at $275 for the last 25 years. If not for Federal assistance during the COVID pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Florida workers were expected to survive on $275 per week.
Federal Assistance: the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan
The COVID pandemic was a wake-up call for many states as we watched our unemployment systems fail. The 2020 CARES Act allocated extra funds to the states to boost their paltry payment amounts, and to get funds to people faster, the law let people self-certify that they were eligible for unemployment, which raised the risks of fraud. A September report by the Government Accountability Office paints a gloomy picture of the amount of unemployment benefits lost to fraud during the pandemic: the new estimate puts the amount of benefits paid out fraudulently between $100 billion and $135 billion, or 11% to 15% of the total amount of benefits paid.
This is why Congress allocated $2 billion in the 2021 American Rescue Plan to help states modernize and cut down on fraud in their unemployment systems. With these funds, the U.S. Department of Labor offers states a visit from one of their “tiger teams,” offering a free assessment of their unemployment program and providing recommendations. The states can then apply for federal grants to implement the recommendations. One of the main goals of the Department of Labor program is to improve fraud prevention measures, including identification verification subscription costs, establishing and expanding data analytics, and implementing cybersecurity defense strategies. This funding represents a lifeline for states like Florida, but state leaders must accept the assistance. Unfortunately, as of July 2023, Florida is one of only 14 states not participating in this program, according to the US Department of Labor.
Will Our Legislature Work to Repair the Unemployment System?
With just two months left before the start of the 2024 legislative session in January, we are left wondering if the state’s Republican leaders have any intention of addressing Florida’s deeply flawed unemployment system. Instead of playing politics, our leaders should prioritize fixing the system so Floridians who face involuntary job losses are not left homeless and penniless. Now is the moment for Floridians to come together across partisan divides and call on our elected officials to stand up for the worker safety net the same way workers have stood up for Florida’s economic recovery.
Floridians have every right to be infuriated by the indifference of our state’s leaders. Just envision if the Social Security program operated as poorly as our unemployment system. Federal assistance provided by the American Rescue Plan offers a ray of hope for an unemployment system that truly serves the people and safeguards us during financial crises. It’s high time for Floridians to insist on an efficient and dependable unemployment system that won’t abandon us when we need it most.