Florida’s Unemployment Insurance System Breaks Down Under COVID-19

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Unemployed Floridians could lose weeks’ worth of jobless benefits they would otherwise be due.

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As COVID-19 spread throughout Florida during March, many of the hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers in the state found themselves unable to apply for unemployment insurance because the state’s website kept crashing under an inundation of new users. Many continue to wait for the benefits they are due, weeks after they were first laid off.

Due to high demand, many Floridians unable to apply on the state’s website also could not reach anyone at the unemployment office’s call center, previously the only alternate way to apply for coverage. Not until early April did the state finally make paper form applications available to laid off workers.

But even with the paper form option, presumably only Floridians with access to a computer, internet connection, and printer can readily download and mail their completed forms to the state’s unemployment office. When local officials and groups stepped in to provide paper forms, Floridians without internet access flooded local distribution sites, some reportedly waiting in line for hours to get their hands on the paper forms and risking exposure to the coronavirus.

Complicating matters further, provisions in Florida law have limited the state’s ability—or willingness—to pay out benefits retroactively from the date of an application, causing added stress for those who have been unable to get through to the state to apply for their benefits. Last week, however, the secretary of the state’s Department of Management Services told reporters that the state would pay retroactive benefits to applicants laid off after March 9. Yet, as of the date of publication of this essay, Governor Ron DeSantis has not issued any executive order or other official statement confirming or effectuating the reported decision of the Department of Management Services.

Normally, jobless applicants in Florida can only receive unemployment benefits starting from the Sunday before they filed an application—not the Sunday before they actually lost their jobs. As a result, the problems with the state’s broken electronic application system meant that many Floridians faced the prospect of losing out on weeks’ worth of potential benefits.

Even when unemployed Floridians do finally receive their unemployment insurance benefits, the amount they receive will be among the lowest in the country. Florida provides unemployment compensation for only 12 weeks—the shortest duration in the country—and the state caps its benefits at $275 per week—the fifth lowest in the country. States with similar costs of living “offer nearly twice the amount” of support, according to members of Florida’s congressional delegation.

Any hardship that the state’s meager unemployment insurance imposes on Florida families is at least partially offset by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which provides an estimated $260 billion in enhanced and expanded unemployment insurance to be administered by states, just like typical unemployment benefits programs.

The CARES Act provides all eligible individuals in participating states with an extra $600 per week through July, in addition to the weekly benefit amount they otherwise would be eligible to receive. Recent U.S. Department of Labor guidance instructs states to provide retroactive payment of the extra $600 in weekly benefits to eligible individuals even when states have not immediately been able to pay these benefits.

The CARES Act also provides for a special, temporary benefit for workers who are not otherwise eligible for typical unemployment benefits—such as self-employed individuals and independent contractors. Under the CARES Act, states have the authority to pay out these benefits for weeks of unemployment, partial employment, or inability to work due to COVID-19-related conditions.

In the wake of the massive economic dislocations prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, Governor DeSantis has found himself under increasing pressure to implement changes to Florida’s unemployment insurance system to make benefits more broadly available.

The recent decision to provide retroactive benefits came only after members of Florida’s congressional delegation and members of the state legislature sent letters to DeSantis urging him to make benefit payments retroactive to when each individual became unemployed.

Miami city commissioners also passed an emergency resolution urging this change, and other state and local officials also sent letters to the governor asking him to ensure that unemployed workers receive the full payment they would have received had the state’s unemployment system functioned properly.

DeSantis has already made some efforts to improve the state’s unemployment system and make it easier for Floridians to apply for and retain benefits. For example, he waived the requirement that claimants submit detailed biweekly reports proving that they are “actively seeking work” and have contacted at least five prospective employers per week.

But DeSantis has said that without a legislative change there is nothing he can do to increase the state’s meager weekly benefits. Others disagree—and say that the change is within his emergency powers.

Even before the pandemic, Florida’s system was, according to a DeSantis advisor, designed to make “it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low.” Officials apparently already knew the system had major problems and could not handle an influx of claims. The state is now reportedly spending nearly $100 million to improve the system.

Given the backlog of already-accumulating claims, it appears that many Floridians are unlikely to receive their payments any time soon. Nearly seven out of every eight Floridians who managed to file claims during the three weeks from mid-March until early April may still be waiting to have them processed—the worst rate in the country—according to the Associated Press.

Although a federal regulation does require states to pay benefits “with the greatest promptness that is administratively feasible,” a state will be deemed in “substantial compliance” if it demonstrates that “failure to meet the criteria of adequacy is attributable” to “factors reasonably beyond a state’s control.” A global pandemic could be one such factor, and so Florida’s delays in processing unemployment claims might be acceptable under current federal law.

Michele Evermore, an unemployment insurance expert at the National Employment Law Project quoted in a recent New York Times article, summarizes the overall predicament for laid off workers in the state: “Florida is a terrible state to be an unemployed person.”