Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani rejected suggestions that people would rather collect unemployment benefits than work during debate on the House floor on April 20, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel
State Rep. Anna Eskamani had heard enough. She and other House Democrats had been advocating for months — even before the Florida Legislature opened its annual session nearly two months ago — to boost the state’s notoriously paltry unemployment benefits.
And now, during debate on the House floor on Tuesday, their pleas were falling on deaf ears.
Worse, Republicans were arguing that there are plenty of jobs for people who want to work and that boosting benefits might encourage otherwise able-bodied people to laze at home instead of finding a job.
“I get sick and tired of folks slandering our workers who carry the backbone of this economy,” Eskamani said, tears welling in her eyes as colleagues moved close to show sympathy.
That’s how it’s going in the Legislature this year.
After COVID, when the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s unemployment compensation website melted down under the demand from people thrown out of work, the Republicans who control both chambers have shown little interest in revisiting benefits levels that their predecessors had slashed a decade earlier.
The nonprofit States Newsroom last year ranked Florida dead last in unemployment benefits in the nation, a combination of just 12 weeks and a maximum weekly benefit of $275.
There remains a chance the Legislature will act on benefits before adjourning as scheduled on April 30. A Senate bill (SB 1906) would expand weekly benefits and eligibility, too, and enjoys bipartisan support — GOP Sens. Joe Gruters and Jason Brodeur are cosponsors, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has come out against it. (Gruters also is chair of the Republican Party of Florida.)
The bill under debate on Tuesday (HB 1463) by Republican Chip LaMarca of Broward County would require the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to host its benefits software on a cloud service that could be rapidly expanded in periods of high demand, to prevent any future meltdowns.
The department would need to review the platform every year. The debate set the matter up for a final vote, likely on Wednesday.
Eskamani, of Orange County, offered two of three Democratic amendments Tuesday that together would have increased the maximum weekly benefit by $100, to $375; expanded eligibility; and expanded the benefits period from the existing 12 weeks to 22 weeks — still shy of the national average of 26 weeks.
Each idea got shot down on party-line votes as Republicans including Alex Andrade of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties suggested too-generous benefits might encourage sloth.
“I know in my district, which is largely a service economy, there are help wanted signs everywhere right now and employers are desperate for people to come back to work,” Andrade said.
“There are help wanted signs all over the state,” offered Tommy Gregory of Sarasota and Manatee counties. “There are jobs that are double the minimum wage available in my district now.”
That snapped Eskamani’s last nerve.
“Members, I have really tough skin. I have to have tough skin to be a Democrat in this chamber,” Eskamani told House members.
“But when I hear folks make these derogatory comments about the people of Florida, insinuating that people are lazy and people don’t want to work, it really hurts my feelings,” she continued.
She recalled her own family’s struggles while she and her twin sister were growing up with immigrant parents. Their mother worked three jobs. Her father worked two.
“And yes, Rep. Andrade, there are folks who are hiring in my district. And I’m working with Career Source [the state’s jobs service] to get people back to work. I’m doing everything I can to get people back to work.
“But when you are 40 years old, 50 years old, and you’ve lost your job at Walt Disney World where you’ve worked your entire life, you met your wife there, guess what: It’s really hard to find a job,” she said.
“This is not people being lazy. This is us trying to build an equitable system where every person just has a chance to succeed. We believe in second chances in this body. It’s really hard to have a second chance when you only get $275 a week and are trying to think about how you’re going to feed your kids. How are you going to pay for gas? How are you going to pay for wifi so you can apply for a job?”
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, also of Orange County, was behind the amendment extending the benefits period. He noted that existing law allows for benefits for up to 23 weeks but only if the unemployment rate exceeds 10.5 percent.
He noted that not a single Republican asked a question about his proposal.
“You all received calls [from constituents] asking for help with unemployment benefits — people who needed their benefits. They were crying on the phone, saying that they couldn’t feed their families, that they couldn’t afford their medications for themselves or their children,” Smith said.
“How quickly we forget,” he said.
Smith noted that the situation would have been even more dire without pandemic relief from the federal government, which hiked the benefit payments for many months.
“This bill, this is it. This is the only chance we have to increase the number of weeks and increase the benefit. So, it’s now or never, members,” he said.
The Legislature did orchestrate a major bail out for business interests by spending an estimated $1 billion being raised by improving enforcement of the tax on online sales into the trust fund financing unemployment benefits.
Otherwise, businesses would have faced increased contributions to that fund of 700 percent or more to keep it afloat.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed that bill into law late Monday evening.
Last week, the governor described unemployment benefits in this way: “Our unemployment is what it is. It’s fine.”
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