The Phoenix Flyer

Lawsuit targets DeSantis administration for blocking extra federal unemployment benefits in FL

By: - July 26, 2021 5:06 pm

Jobless workers demonstrate in Miami Springs in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The DeSantis administration broke state law when it cut off enhanced federal unemployment benefits of $300 in June, according to a lawsuit filed in Broward County trial court.

The complaint, filed on behalf of 10 Broward residents struggling to scrape by on unemployment compensation, alleges that Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity are in violation of a statute requiring them to cooperate with federal labor officials “to the fullest extent … necessary to secure for this state all advantages available under the provisions of federal law relating to reemployment assistance.”

The $300 supplement was scheduled to end Sept. 6, 2021, on Labor Day, but the state cut off the benefits earlier.

The governor acted “for purely partisan political purposes,” the complaint alleges.

“If FPUC benefits are terminated in Florida, each of the plaintiffs and other needy residents of the state of Florida, will be unable to cover basic living expenses such as housing, utilities, food, health care and child care,” it continues.

“FPUC” stands for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, a COVID-related federal program that kicked in an extra $600 per week to supplement state jobless benefits from March through July 2020. The feds later reduced the weekly supplements to $300, but the state cut off the benefits on June 26, 2021. That sparked the the Broward lawsuit.

Florida has the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation, based on a combination of 12 weeks and a maximum amount of $275 a week in payments.

The complaint asks the court to order the administration to begin passing along the federal payments again.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys Scott Behren, Gautier Kitchen, and Marie Mattox were behind an earlier class action against the DEO and Deloitte over the abject failure of the state’s umemployment application web page at the height of COVID job losses.

A Leon County judge rejected that case on separation-of-powers and sovereign-immunity ground, reasoning that the courts aren’t competent to second-guess administrative decisions.

“We think this is kind of a distinguishable suit, because it’s basically a violation of a statutory obligation by the DEO,” Behren said in a telephone interview.

He said similar lawsuits have prevailed in states with similar statutes, including Indiana, as reported by Indianapolis station WTHR, although they have failed elsewhere.

In cutting off the extra federal aid, DeSantis and legislative Republicans cited anecdotal evidence that jobs were going begging.

However, the complaint cites the case of Lori Beth Ertel, a freelance accountant for businesses that closed during the pandemic and has drawn no response to multiple job applications.

“She tried to apply to work at McDonalds and was told that she is overqualified and they were worried that they would train her and she would leave when she found something better,” the document says.

Ertel and additional plaintiffs face loss of homes and family splits for lack of money to pay rent, mortgages, food bills, and more, it says.

Behren noted that the loss of the extra benefits leaves self-employed and gig workers in dire straits, as they are ineligible for state benefits.

“We’re talking about starvation wages for all of these people, with the eviction moratorium ending at the end of the month,” he said.

He also cited women like plaintiff Heather Lulop, who lost her job as a neonatal intensive care nurse because of cutbacks in that department caused by heavy COVID caseloads.

As the complaint put it: “She was relying upon the federal promise of the extra FPUC until September when her kids went back to school full time and she could try to locate a full time job. She is not lazy. She has worked since she was fourteen years old.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.