Florida GOP Realizes Deliberately Impoverishing the Unemployed Has Downsides

Not my sunshine. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When Republican Rick Scott became its governor in 2011, Florida already had one of the stingiest unemployment-insurance systems in the country. As the Great Recession rained pink slips down on the Sunshine State, its laid-off workers received no more than $275 a week in unemployment benefits — a cap that had been set a dozen years earlier and never adjusted for inflation.

But Florida’s system wasn’t just tightfisted; it was also underfunded. Early in Scott’s tenure, the reserves available to pay out unemployment claims ran out. So the tea-partyer faced a choice: He could either raise taxes on businesses to maintain the program or slash benefits for workers amid high unemployment to maintain low taxes on businesses.

He chose the latter. Unemployed Floridians used to receive up to 26 weeks in benefits; Scott cut that to 12 (though the cap does rise gradually after the state’s unemployment rate exceeds 5 percent). He established a new rule requiring the program’s beneficiaries to meet with at least five prospective employers a week to retain their benefits; eliminated the options of applying for benefits over the phone or in person, forcing all laid-off Floridians to sign up through (a poorly designed, underfunded) website; and he made it easier for employers to “prove” that their laid-off workers had been fired for cause and thus did not qualify for benefits — a change employers eagerly sought as their unemployment-insurance tax rates are partly tied to how many of their former workers qualify for aid. Meanwhile, Scott retained the state’s exceptionally low weekly benefit cap, and an eligibility formula that excludes part-time and seasonal workers, even as a supermajority of U.S. states updated their formulas to include such laborers.

As a result, businesses in Florida pay an average yearly unemployment-insurance tax of $50 per employee — the lowest rate in the country, and less than one-fifth of the national average.

Another result of Scott’s changes: Florida is completely unequipped to process the deluge of unemployment-insurance claims that the coronavirus pandemic has set off.

The state’s website for filing claims is routinely crashing. When and if a laid-off Floridian can actually get her application through, she faces a high risk of being denied benefits for failing to meet Scott’s onerous eligibility requirements. And even those who do successfully get aid will receive only $275 a week in state benefits. The economic relief package that Congress passed last week will up that benefit by $600, and extend the duration of unemployment benefits for 13 weeks. But for unemployed Floridians, that extra 13 weeks still leaves them with less than the standard benefit length of 26 weeks; meanwhile, workers in Montana will be eligible for up to 41 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Under ordinary circumstances, Florida Republicans might be unbothered by all this; after all, as some of them admitted in interviews with Politico, the system is doing exactly what their party designed it to do — minimize the number of jobless Floridians who can access state aid, so as to minimize business owners’ tax obligations.

But this is an election year. So Republican governor Ron DeSantis and his allies are worried that their inability to get federal aid into the hands of needy workers could cost Donald Trump reelection:

“It’s a sh– sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott,” said one DeSantis advisor. “It wasn’t about saving money. It was about making it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low to give the governor something to brag about.”

Republican Party of Florida chairman Joe Gruters was more succinct: “$77 million? Someone should go to jail over that.”

With hundreds of thousands of Floridians out of work, the state’s overwhelmed system is making it nearly impossible for many people to even get in line for benefits.

… “This is horrible for people. I don’t want to minimize that,” one DeSantis adviser told POLITICO. “But if we have to look past the crisis, it’s bad for the president and it’s bad for the governor.”

“Everyone we talk to in that office when we ask them what happened tells us, ‘the system was designed to fail,’” the adviser said. “That’s not a problem when unemployment is 2.8 percent, but it’s a problem now. And no system we have can handle 25,000 people a day.”

DeSantis is scrambling to repair the system his party sabotaged, ordering the development of a new mobile app for accessing benefits and deploying hundreds of state workers to help applicants enroll. As of this writing though, nothing significant has been down to increase the generosity of the state’s unemployment benefits.

One might think that, after this vivid demonstration of the Florida GOP’s malign indifference to the well-being of working people, the Sunshine State would be certain to go blue this November. But then again, this is a state whose disproportionately elderly voters elected Rick Scott as their governor, a man who oversaw the largest Medicare fraud in history; watched him transfer wealth from the middle class to the rich for eight years; and then promoted him to the Senate in 2018.

Florida GOP Realizes Impoverishing Unemployed Has Downsides