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Cutbacks on the horizon: Sunshine State abandons unemployed workers

By Conor Munro

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Miami, FL – More than 2 million Floridians have now applied for unemployment benefits. Only a fraction of the applications have even been processed and even fewer workers have received payments. Florida’s unemployment system was already terrible before the crisis and it has completely collapsed under pressure from COVID-19.

Florida’s online application process for unemployment was designed to fail. It was created by right-wing former Governor Rick Scott with big business in mind. Its goals were to be as confusing as possible for any worker trying to submit an application and to reject as many applications as possible for minor errors. That way benefits could be cut, and big businesses could pay less in unemployment taxes.

Even those close to current Republican Governor Ron DeSantis admit as much. One DeSantis advisor was quoted in the online magazine Politico as saying: “It’s a shit sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott. It wasn’t about saving money. It was about making it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low to give the governor something to brag about.”

Since March, millions of people have been laid off due to COVID-19 and Floridians have been reporting serious problems with accessing the system. The website had technical difficulties and was even shut down for three days to resolve the issues. Phonelines were overwhelmed as there were not enough state workers to process the huge number of calls. Even for those who actually managed to complete an application there have been big problems. 250,000 applications were wrongly rejected because simply because they filed in March instead of April. Those people were asked to reapply. Meanwhile they are left without any income for weeks, perhaps months.

Trying to ease pressure on the system, the governor brought back paper applications. DeSantis was even forced to remove some of the strict requirements, like weeklong waiting periods before money is disbursed and providing proof every two weeks that you are actively looking for work. Due to the changes, last week the percentage of applicants being paid was up to a meager 22%. This represented a dramatic increase from a week before when only 6% of those who applied for unemployment had been paid.

Even when the government pays out, the benefits offered are not enough for working people to get by. In fact, Florida’s unemployment payments are some of the lowest in the country. At most unemployed workers are given a measly $275 per week. On top of that, those benefits are only available for 12 weeks. After that you are kicked out of the system. There is a law that allows for increases in the duration of unemployment benefits based on the overall unemployment rate. That means that if the official unemployment rate goes above 5% then people can be paid for longer than 12 weeks. However, that increase will only kick in in June because the calculation is based on a three-month average. By then many workers will have been left without income, totally abandoned by the government. Meanwhile there has been no moratorium on rent payments for working families.

Florida won’t release its official unemployment numbers for April until May 22. However, there does not seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel for its workers. Some economists are calculating the national unemployment rate to be 20%. The nature of Florida’s economy means that number may be much worse. The tourism industry and farming industry are the largest sectors of the economy. Both are deeply impacted by the pandemic.

Florida has the highest concentration of service sector jobs in the country, many based in cities like Orlando where Disney and Universal are some of the largest employers. With few tourists willing to travel and the state’s significant population of elderly baby-boomers sheltering in place, the future looks bleak for the hospitality business. We have seen farms experiencing serious difficulties due to interruptions to food supply chains. Some have even been dumping milk and other produce, abandoning fields of crops and euthanizing animals. As long as restaurants remain closed, produce prices seem likely to stay low. Owners are already suggesting cutting wages for farmworkers.

As the state moves into hurricane season, a storm is brewing for Florida’s public sector workers as well. As tax revenues fall, the right-wing legislature will try to impose vicious cutbacks and layoffs to balance the budget. Without a doubt a serious fight will be on for the future of workers’ pensions, union contracts and public education in the Sunshine State.

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