TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Consider the plight of Florida’s unemployed.

What You Need To Know

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, those Floridians began to endure the stress of trying to log on to and navigate Florida’s now-notorious CONNECT jobless-benefits system — only to receive some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the country.

Florida's benefit still stands at a maximum of $275 a week for no longer than 12 weeks, plus $300 weekly supplements into early September from a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 federal relief package.

Those numbers put the Sunshine State in lonely company compared with other states's unemployment benefits.

“I think we are at the bottom, and we needed to do something about that,” state Sen. Linda Stewart told Spectrum News this week.

Stewart (D-Orlando) counts herself among several state legislators, including a Republican from Central Florida, who say they’re trying to take action to improve benefits for those who need them.

Stewart introduced a bill this legislative session that she said would increase the state’s maximum unemployment benefit to $400 a week and extend the benefit period to 26 weeks, in line with most other states.

Her legislation stood this week among at least six Senate unemployment-compensation or reemployment-assistance bills in the state Legislature, including one from Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) — and what could be a pivotal one from Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford), whose bill has won the endorsement of the Senate majority leader.

Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) goes a step further in a House bill that, among other changes, would extend eligibility to 26 weeks and increase the benefits to $500 per week.

Eskamani calls her bill, also sponsored by Rep. Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg), “the platinum edition of what unemployment needs to look like in order for us to modernize the system and provide benefits that people can actually survive with.”

Florida Lags Nation in Jobless Benefits

In an analysis this month by Forbes Advisor, Florida ranks tied for 47th in the U.S. in average weekly unemployment benefits ($236) and dead last when you combine the average weekly benefit with the benefit duration and the state’s cost of living index.

At 12 weeks of unemployment benefits, Florida appears to stand alone at the low mark for duration; Arkansas, which sits second from the bottom in that criteria, pays assistance for 16 weeks. 

University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett chalks that up to decades of powerful groups that represent employers, all of whom must pay an unemployment tax, and to more than 20 years of Republican control of Florida government.

Jewett also pointed out that under normal economic circumstances, “It’s not that difficult to find a job in Florida. It might not pay great, but historically, our unemployment rate is quite low, better than the national average.”

After the pandemic hit last March, millions of unemployed workers swarmed and paralyzed Florida’s unemployment system, leaving many in a holding pattern without receiving benefits for weeks or months.

Jewett said he thinks that made this economic crisis worse than the Great Recession that began in 2007. He pointed out that the pandemic has affected people “who never envisioned that they would ever in their life need unemployment in Florida.”

“It was really widespread and pretty brutal for a lot of people, and so given all that, it’s possible that you might see some movement, even among some Republicans,” he said.

Bill by Senate's Brodeur Offers Upgrade

Orlando's Stewart sees that, too. Given continued GOP control of both houses of the Florida Legislature, Stewart noted the potential promise of an unemployment-benefits bill from a Republican.

Brodeur’s SB 1906 calls for an increase to $375 in maximum weekly benefits but no extension to the duration.

“Our state’s current level of reemployment assistance doesn’t go nearly as far as it did when it was introduced,” Brodeur said through an aide in an email statement to Spectrum News. “Over the last 10 years, the cost of living has gone up, but our state’s maximum assistance levels have stayed the same. This bill as written would bring us up to the current average for all 50 states. Of course, there are regional differences in cost of living that need to be addressed, and I look forward to working on the details through the committee process.”

Brodeur’s bill got a boost Wednesday when Senate leaders said it had been added to the Monday agenda of the Commerce and Tourism Committee.

Also Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Debbie Mayfield (R-Melbourne) told Spectrum News she would support Brodeur’s measure to increase the maximum benefit to $375 a week.

“The maximum unemployment benefit amount has not been raised in over two decades, and certainly, the cost of living has grown substantially since then,” Mayfield said in an email statement through her office. “The pandemic has shined a light on several issues with Florida’s unemployment system, and it is important that we continue our work to thoughtfully address these matters.”

"A Lot of Support" for Addressing Issues

Stewart, the Orlando senator, noted early this week that her bill was similar to Brodeur’s, except that hers increased the maximum benefit to $400 a week and included an extension to 26 weeks of benefits.

“I need to talk to him about that,” Stewart told Spectrum News, referring to an extension of weeks.

She said she didn’t care whose bill got Senate consideration “as long as we get something done.”

“We are at the bottom of the benefits package in the United States,” Stewart said, and $375 or $400 a week “would put us in the middle of the pack. I don’t think that’s unreasonable to ask.”

About Stewart’s plan to try to work with Brodeur on the bill, Brodeur said in his statement to Spectrum News that he looked forward to working with Stewart "and the rest of my colleagues in the Florida Senate, to get this bill into a form that addresses the needs of Floridians who are out of work through no fault of their own.”

He also said: “There’s a lot of support for addressing this issue across party lines.”

Eskamani, the Orlando representative, said she sees the Senate as “more willing to increase the weekly benefit amount.”

“The House is pretty strict on embracing changes, to say the least,” she said. “I think if the Senate offers it as one of their priorities, the House could adopt it.”

Efforts on Wednesday by Spectrum News to get an idea about where House Republican leadership stood on unemployment-benefits legislation were unsuccessful.

Eskamani's Bill Proposes Bigger Weekly Increase

Eskamani acknowledged that her HB 207, which also would create a reemployment assistance ombudsman office in the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, is “not a bill that a Republican Legislature is going to pick up.”

“It very much puts a line in the sand to say, ‘This is what we want as a negotiation tool’ to then push our Republican colleagues to then pick up pieces of it,” she said Monday.

In a text message to Spectrum News, state Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil (D-Maitland) said that the Legislature has declined to consider bills “that significantly address the problems we had with the unemployment compensation system that was set up to fail.”

“The legislature is focusing on protecting big business much more than helping the workers,” she said late Monday, before Wednesday's developments.

“I would be happy to support a Republican-sponsored bill that adequately addresses all the issues exacerbated by the pandemic, which includes — but is not limited to — increasing unemployment benefits," Goff-Marcil added.