ORLANDO, Fla. — With COVID-19 cases and layoffs surging, millions of Floridians will soon find themselves without any further government assistance to rely on without action from Congress.
Negotiations in Washington, D.C., however appear to still be stalled.
What You Need To Know
- Florida provides up to 12 weeks of state unemployment benefits, at a rate of $275 per week, among the lowest in the nation
- Federal funds from the CARES Act helped subsidize state unemployment benefits
- Without a deal in Congress, the federal program will end on December 26
At issue is whether to pass a measure to provide additional unemployment benefits to those still out of work due to the economic impact of COVID-19.
Florida provides up to 12 weeks of state unemployment benefits, at a rate of $275 per week, among the lowest in the nation.
In early 2020 Congress passed the CARES Act, which included providing billions of dollars in unemployment assistance.
Those federal programs will end December 26.
“Two hundred and forty dollars, after taxes, doesn’t even buy the groceries,” said Sonja Flowers.
After 26 years working for Walt Disney World, Flowers was laid off.
Tens of thousands of people in Central Florida alone are facing extended furloughs and layoffs.
Walt Disney World is laying off more than 11,400 employees, while Universal Orlando Resort laid off or furloughed nearly 6,000 employees, and SeaWorld laid off close to 2,000 workers.
The figures above do not include the broad layoffs at hotels, resorts, attractions, and countless other businesses in the region.
Osceola and Orange counties consistently rank with the highest unemployment rates in the state and thus see some of the most unemployment claim filings.
More than 4 million unemployment claims were filed in Florida since March 15.
Of those who qualified for benefits, time is running out. Funding for the extended federal programs will end in weeks and at this point there appears to be little effort for a last minute deal.
Some of the federal programs have already expired. The program providing $600 per week for four months ended in July, with the deadline quickly approach for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).
This Summer the U.S. House passed the Heroes Act which would have extended $600 weekly federal unemployment benefits until January 2021.
The Republican controlled U.S. Senate failed to take a vote on the measure, with chamber Republicans split on whether to extend benefits at a cost totaling several trillion dollars.
Late negotiations between House Democrats and the White House also broke off after a difference in how much to spend.
“We absolutely need to get more COVID relief out, especially as we’re seeing that cases are spiking and the relief provided in the CARES Act package passed back in March is pretty much starting to run out,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Florida’s 7th Congressional District).
Murphy admits she has little optimism that partisanship can be pushed aside in Congress to reach a deal in time.
“We have to have both chambers committed and understanding the American people need additional assistance and the Senate doesn’t get that right now,” Murphy said.
Florida’s republican senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have said they have limits on what they will support.
“Senator Scott will consider every proposal to help Americans that are struggling because of the coronavirus,” Scott's Press Secretary Sarah Schwirian told Spectrum News. “… Senator Scott has been clear that he wants to help Americans, but will not support using trillions of taxpayer dollars to bail out poorly-managed state budgets and pay for liberal priorities that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.”
A number of House Republicans say they are optimistic a deal could be reached, but place blame on Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“While the Republicans have been trying to come to the negotiating table for more COVID-19 relief, House and Senate Democrats have continued to block any real progress with their unrelated demands for outrageous, socialist provisions,” Carson Steelman, Communications Director for Republican Congressman Greg Steube told Spectrum News.
“Members of both political parties agree that we have a duty to pass meaningful pandemic relief,” Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis said. “However, for the past several months partisan politics have gotten in the way of building consensus about how to best meet the needs of Americans. This week in Washington, I was very disappointed that the Speaker has yet again failed to place consensus legislation on the Floor for a vote.”
Republican Congressman Michael Waltz of Volusia County is optimistic that a deal could be reached as time is running out.
“We feel confident there will be another COVID package passed before this Congress ends on January 3,” Waltz's Communications Director Allison Nielsen told Spectrum News. “Based on the results of the election and the Democratic losses in the House, we think Pelosi will be more open to passing something with a more bipartisan approach.”
Unemployment researchers Andrew Stettner and Elizabeth Pancotti released a study this week revealing that up to 12 million Americans could be impacted if Congress does not reach a deal.
House Democrats point to a series of measures passed this Summer, blaming Republicans for stalling any extensions.
“Central Floridians are suffering, cases are rising and we need economic relief now,” said Democratic Congressman Darren Soto of Kissimmee. “The House Democratic Majority has voted twice now for the HEROES Act to fund coronavirus response, keep our first responders on the job, help small businesses and extend unemployment benefits, and provide food and housing assistance. The Republican Senate has failed to pass any new coronavirus relief bill. I am ready to vote for a compromise package and joined the Problem Solvers in proposing a bipartisan $1.5 trillion deal.”
Any deal in Congress still leaves a remaining issue: What about the long term?
“The reality is that even if unemployment was working and if people were receiving payments, we know the payments are not enough,” said Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskmani of Orlando. “Florida is not up to par with the national average.”
Eskamani’s office processed thousands of complaints this summer from frustrated Floridians unable to obtain benefits in a timely manner.
In preparing for the 2021 Legislative Session, state lawmakers are eyeing two approaches to addressing Florida’s unemployment system: the system itself, and the Benefits
State Democrats are pushing a proposal that includes:
- Extending benefits from 12 weeks to 26 weeks.
- Extending $275 weekly benefits to $500 per week.
- Creating eligibility measures to include those currently not qualified for state benefits, including gig workers and self-employed.
The challenge for Democrats is that the Florida Legislature is heavily Republican controlled.
“This has to be an issue of bipartisanship, an eviction notice doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat,” Eskamani said.
What Republicans and Democrats do agree on is the system itself needs to be fixed.
The state has spent tens of millions of dollars creating and then fixing the failures within the system itself.
“I think there have been safeguards put into the system for the last eight months,” Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson told reporters in Tallahassee this week.
When pressed on what specifically he would do to address the unemployment crisis, Simpson and other Republican leaders said it was an issue they would begin taking up in January.
The Legislature is scheduled to meet for session in March, leaving the remaining challenge for Floridians. No matter what the Legislature approves, any program or relief would not come until July 1, 2021 at the earliest, at the start of the new fiscal year.