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WINK INVESTIGATES: Unemployment benefits haven’t gone up since 1998; what will it take to raise them?

Struggling for more than six months, people did get extra help from the federal government, but that’s over now. Unemployed Floridians have to survive on $275 a week maximum – if they qualify for benefits.

Around the country, Florida has one of the lowest weekly benefit amounts (the only states that pay less are Arizona, Louisiana and Mississippi) and for the shortest time: 12 weeks. Some lawmakers want to change that.

What would it take? To put it simply, lawmakers vote it in and the governor has to sign off. Having the money to do it will be more difficult.

To understand why, we have to look back in time.

In 1998, $275 became the maximum weekly benefit for up to 26 weeks.

Then in 2011, when Rick Scott is governor, work begins on the new unemployment website. Still battling the Great Recession, he also signs off on a plan to slash payments from 26 to 12 weeks. The goal was to cut down costs for employers, bring more of them to the state and create jobs.

While people did get back to work then, almost 10 years later and in the midst of a pandemic, jobs are hard to come by.

“Our state is hospitality and tourism, and those businesses have been destroyed with this,” said Bonnie Armstrong of Naples.

Since March, almost 4 million people have applied for unemployment in Florida. If you’re lucky enough to be eligible, people like Armstrong, Sam Harrison, Carlos Leal and Cynthia Cox say the struggle doesn’t end there.

They’ve battled glitches, endless hours on the phone, and weeks – or even months – of waiting, all for $275 a week at most.

“They say that it’s an internal error,” Harrison said.

“You can’t have people waiting for months for money that they’ve worked all their lives to have,” Leal said.

Both Harrison and Leal waited months before receiving payments, and it took the help of WINK News contacting the Department of Economic Opportunity to get them.

“It’s hard. It’s hard. Nobody can live off of $125,” Cox said.

In April, Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) requested legislators hold a special session to address the low max benefit amount, but they denied it. He’ll push at least one bill in the next session for higher, longer-lasting benefits.

“I think it’s irresponsible to, one, have a website like this in place. But also to not be able to give a good safety net for people when a crisis happens,” said Bracy. “I would think it should be an average that most states have, and so I’ve put forth I believe 475 to 600 range,” he said.

Back to 1998: The Department of Labor says based on inflation, what might have cost you $100 then costs $160 today. Since then, the state minimum wage has gone up more than $3, but benefit payments haven’t followed the same path.

“They could have and should have adjusted the maximum benefit amount so that as items became more expensive, as housing became more expensive, that amount went up,” said Ryan Barack, a labor and employment lawyer at Kwall, Barack, Nadeau PLLC located in Clearwater.

Barack said not raising the weekly benefit amount over the years has caused people to suffer.

“The business interests dominate the Florida legislature, and as a result, they were able to keep this rate artificially low,” he said.

Those business interests are fought for by the Chamber of Commerce, who said changes to unemployment benefits need to consider the state’s job creators going through an unprecedented downturn:

The pandemic-driven recession has been difficult for both displaced employees and closed businesses alike, as both try to make ends meet until doors can fully reopen. Unemployment compensation provides an important safety net for Floridians who find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own, but ultimately the cost is borne by employers and the consumers of their goods and services. The Florida Chamber will review all proposals to ensure we have a healthy unemployment compensation system that provides the needed benefits while balancing the impact of proposed increases to Florida’s job creators who are also weathering this unprecedented downturn. – Carolyn Johnson, Director of Business, Economic Development and Innovation Policy

WINK News asked Gov. Ron DeSantis if he plans on raising benefits, but his office never got back to us.

Dane Eagle, the new executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity and a former legislator, said it isn’t up to him.

“All I can do is make sure I’m at the table providing the accurate data so that they have the right decision, but I’m gonna leave that up to them,” he said when asked his opinion.

Meanwhile, your struggle hasn’t stopped.

“I’ve been borrowing from people I can, I’ve been living off my savings. My savings is now gone and I have to sell my house,” Harrison said.

“I don’t think it’s going to turn into everybody staying on unemployment forever and trying to milk the system. We all want to go back to work. We’re hard-working, and I’m ready. I’m ready to go back to work,” Armstrong said.

Remember, a new max benefit is just that – a maximum. How much someone gets in unemployment would still be based on their regular earnings.

“There are societal and institutional costs we all end up bearing if we don’t help people in these times,” Barack said. “And that’s really, from a purely selfish standpoint, it benefits people to help their neighbor, and to help keep the system in a way where when they need those benefits, they are available to them just like they’re available to their neighbors when they need it.”

As for lawmakers in our area, only one – Rep. Spencer Roach (R-Dist. 79) – told WINK News outright he supports an increase.

If you want to reach out to your local legislator, here is their contact information:

Rep. Spencer Roach – [email protected]
Rep. Michael Grant – [email protected]
Rep. Ray Rodrigues – [email protected]
Rep. Bob Rommel – [email protected]
Rep. AnaMaria Rodriguez – [email protected]
Sen. Kathleen Passidomo – [email protected]
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto – [email protected]
Sen. Ben Albritton – [email protected]

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For ongoing updates on unemployment, follow WINK News Investigative Reporter Sara Girard on Twitter and Facebook.

She also updates the WINK News FAQ: Unemployment Resources page as information is received.

Reporter:Sara Girard
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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