Florida lawmakers propose legislation to overhaul state's unemployment system

Modernizing and improving Florida's broken unemployment benefit system-- that's the goal of new legislation introduced Wednesday. The bill would expand benefits, set guidelines for the office, and establish an oversight branch for the Department of Economic Opportunity. 

Amid ongoing layoffs and job loss from coronavirus closures, tens of thousands of Floridians went online over the past ten months to file unemployment claims only to find that they couldn't get through, or that benefits were not enough-- if they came at all. 

The state's current unemployment system allows for a maximum weekly payment of $275 for 12 weeks. Under the proposed legislation-- the weekly payment would go to $500, lasting up to 26 weeks, which is the national average.

The state bill is sponsored by Rep. Anna Eskamani and Sen. Ben Diamond, both Democrats. It would also give the state no more than three weeks to decide whether a filer qualifies for benefits.

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Under the proposed legislation, the DEO would become more accessible as the office would have to take claim submissions by mail and online, plus two other methods like by phone or by email. 

"It’s so important that not only do we address the needs immediately, but that we look back at these last ten months and realize that the system was designed to fail and did so epically," Eskamani told lawmakers as she introduced the legislation during a virtual meeting on Wednesday. "We are here to fix it." 

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This bill would create an oversight branch of the DEO, giving continuous feedback on how the department can improve. The legislation would also provide adjustments to address seasonal workers and farmworkers. 

Joshua Vasquez supports the legislation. He's a UCF student and is currently unemployed. 

"At the onset of the pandemic, I was a full-time student at UCF and working part-time. I was essentially furloughed," he explained Wednesday.  "My determination after I applied for unemployment was $112 after taxes, which was much less than I was making as a part-time worker. Without the CARES Act, I don’t know what I would’ve done, especially with off-campus housing not doing much to assist students with rent either." 

While it remains to be seen whether the proposed legislation picks up backing from across the aisle, Rep. Eskamani said she is hopeful it will gain bipartisan support.