Laid-off workers and allies at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty
From the East Coast to the West, from the Gulf Coast to Alaska, at least 30 states have signed up for a $300 federal supplement per week for jobless workers. But not Florida.
In a state that has the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation, Gov. Ron DeSantis has thus far chosen not to provide the additional $300, raising questions about his lack of urgency in helping vulnerable residents who are out of work.
For months, DeSantis has used his extensive executive authority to quarantine certain travelers, establish highway checkpoints, shut down and reopen businesses, block and reinstate evictions, and take other actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But when it comes to Florida’s meager unemployment benefits — $275 per week for 12 weeks — the governor appears to be at a standstill, says Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy with Florida AFL-CIO.
“He could increase the benefit. He could increase the number of weeks,” Templin said. “He has shown a willingness to seize an incredible amount of power. The only thing he hasn’t done is address the unemployment crisis.”
More than two weeks have gone by since President Donald Trump initiated a program to provide states with $300 weekly payments for the jobless.
DeSantis is loyal to Trump, but the governor has not stated publicly if he will apply for the president’s program. His spokespeople say he is evaluating the situation.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which runs the state’s problematic unemployment system, and the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which administers disaster funds, also haven’t said anything publicly, referring inquiries from the Florida Phoenix back to the governor’s office.
The Phoenix asked DEO to comment on whether the unemployment system could accommodate the new $300 program, but the agency didn’t answer.
The Phoenix also requested comment from top Republican leaders, including Senate President Bill Galvano and Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings. Those leaders did not respond. The Republican Party of Florida declined to comment and the Florida Chamber of Commerce didn’t respond.
Meanwhile, Florida’s jobless rate in July, the latest data available, was 11.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 1.1 million people out of work.
Disaster funds for unemployment benefits?
For four months, Florida’s jobless had a lifeline: a $600 federal supplement paid atop each state’s regular unemployment benefits. But that supplement expired at the end of July.
The new federal benefit of $300 weekly was signed by executive order on Aug. 8, to be drawn from federal disaster funds. As before, the federal benefit would be paid atop state benefits.
Trump authorized the program after lawmakers in Congress failed to agree on a new coronavirus relief package.
Various analysts have predicted the money would hold out for just five or six weeks if all states participate and there are no complications.
But states do have complications, such as Florida’s hurricanes and California’s wildfires.
These real-time events pertain to the president’s “Lost Wages Assistance” plan because they are linked to the nation’s Disaster Relief Fund. If natural disasters this summer draw down the balance of the fund, the unemployment payments will stop even sooner than intended, according to Aug. 12 technical guidance provided by the Department of Labor.
“The wisdom of depleting this reservoir of funds at this moment is questionable, as hurricane season is about to switch into high gear,” says a joint analysis by the National Employment Law Project and the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.
Scratch the extra $100
Since mid-August, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has announced the enrollment of at least 30 states in the Lost Wages Assistance program.
States have the option of adding another $100 from their coffers to the $300 in federal funds to bolster unemployment benefits, but it’s not mandated and most states are going with $300. The deadline to apply is Sept. 10.
Eight states and Puerto Rico have not signaled interest in the $300 benefit, but others have indicated their constituents’ needs outweigh concerns about potential legal and technical shortcomings of the program, said Michael Quillen, policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures. The nonpartisan NCSL advocates for legislatures in every state.
“Temporarily, of course you want to see people get money to help them while they’re out of work … but we think there’s a huge legal challenge coming,” Quillen said.
Templin, of the Florida AFL-CIO, concurred.
“Florida’s workers absolutely need relief and they need it yesterday. But I don’t think anybody is confident about what this [executive order on unemployment] means,” Templin said. “These are not the serious policy decisions and planning we needed. It’s starting to look like a failed election-year ploy.”
Templin and Quillen said Trump’s reliance on disaster relief funds to pay unemployment benefits may overstep his authority.
Federal law allows a president to dispatch federal relief funds through FEMA in the wake of natural disasters, but it’s unclear if the economic chaos caused by COVID-19 qualifies as a natural disaster.
In addition, the law technically mandates a 25 percent state match under disaster circumstances, which has now been waived, raising another legal question, according to the National Employment Law Project.
“Counting [a state’s regular unemployment benefits] as a match is a risky step that will likely trigger future investigation by oversight agencies, and carries a risk that states would have to pay an amount equal to the total of these benefits back to the federal government at some point,” the analysis says.
Gov. DeSantis has implied similar concerns, though more than half the nation has signed on to the program.
Templin said the governor may be shrewd to sidestep legal hurdles that could arise from the Lost Wages Assistance plan, but that doesn’t get funds to Florida households in need, and it doesn’t cycle money through Florida’s economy.
Congress, do your job
James Nash, press secretary for the National Governors Association, said governors from both political parties feel strongly that Congress should reach an agreement on another coronavirus relief package.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, chairman of the Governors Association, recently enrolled his state for Lost Wages Assistance funding after objecting to the state matching requirement, now waived.
“Now that the federal government has blinked and will no longer make states provide funding they do not have, New York State will apply for the Lost Wages Assistance program,” said Cuomo’s state budget director, Robert Mujica Jr. “But make no mistake, this does not absolve Washington from doing its job, and they must pass a comprehensive aid package.”
Quillen, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said several state legislatures indicate they may convene special sessions to craft long-term programs for their constituents.
In Florida, Senate Democrats are demanding a special session on unemployment, safe elections, evictions and more. Republicans hold the majority in both chambers of the Legislature.
“We are the Senate Democratic Caucus. We have a job to do as well,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer of Broward County.
DeSantis has not called a special session.
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