TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A bill that would increase Florida’s maximum unemployment benefit from $275 to $375 a week cleared its first hurdle Monday.

What You Need To Know

  • Bill to increase Florida's unemployment benefits to $375/week clears Senate panel

  • Some Democrats say the legislation doesn't go far enough, including in duration

  • Republican-heavy committee votes down efforts to further expand benefits

The legislation won approval of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, which voted 9-1 in favor of it — even as some Democrats on the committee expressed concern that it wouldn’t go far enough to help Florida’s unemployed workers.

For example, they said, the bill doesn’t increase eligibility beyond the current 12 weeks, less than half the duration that many states offer.

Yet some considered the legislation a promising start given Florida’s bottom-of-the-country reputation for unemployment benefits. An analysis this month by Forbes Advisor ranks the state 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.

“I believe my bill’s a good starting point, and I intend to have discussions that go beyond just looking at the averages across all 50 states, which is how we deduced this number,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford), referring to his proposal to raise maximum benefits to $375 a week.

Advocates of further strengthening unemployment-compensation benefits pointed to action in the Senate last week, when the full chamber voted to require out-of-state online retailers to collect Florida sales taxes that would be used to replenish the state’s Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund. The measure would help Florida business owners avoid an increase in unemployment taxes.

“I just want to echo the hope that as we move forward, remember that this isn’t just about keeping a trust fund solvent or protecting it,” Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said in public comments Monday. “We have to balance it with helping workers.”

To become law, the unemployment-assistance legislation faces a hefty climb, especially since the House of Representatives has advanced no companion bill.

Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) introduced legislation that would increase the state’s maximum unemployment benefit to $500 a week, plus extend eligibility from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, among other measures. But no House committees were scheduled to consider it as of Monday.

The Republican-heavy Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee approved one amendment, from the bill’s sponsor. The measure reduced from five to three the number of prospective employers that claimants must contact each week in order to receive benefits. It also removed a requirement that claimants must include phone numbers of prospective employers.

The panel otherwise rejected attempts from Democrats, particularly Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach, to make Brodeur’s bill look more like Eskamani’s.

The committee turned down amendments that aimed to increase benefits to a maximum of $500 a week for 26 weeks, and to extend eligibility to more people, including an amendment that would have given unemployed workers an alternate way to calculate their base period for unemployment compensation.

“This issue alone would give access to the lowest- wage seasonal workers in this state,” said Woodall, of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy.

Brodeur, the bill’s sponsor, said the amendment made him nervous because he didn’t know how much money expanded eligibility would cost the state. Brodeur also said “I would say this is something we could work on once this gets further down the line.”

“Sen. Brodeur, don’t be nervous,” said Powell, of West Palm Beach. “This is something that can change lives.”