State cuts off federal jobless aid

TALLAHASSEE — Florida plans to stop providing $300 a week in additional federal unemployment benefits as it pushes for people to return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity announced Monday that starting June 26 the state will no longer participate in the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. State and business officials have argued that, when added to state unemployment payments, the $300 a week in federal aid is keeping people from returning to jobs.

After a report Friday showed that an estimated 487,000 Floridians were unemployed in April out of a workforce of 10.24 million, the Department of Economic Opportunity called Monday’s move “another key step to returning more Floridians to work,” dubbing it the “Return to Work” initiative.

“Transitioning away from this benefit will help meet the demands of small and large businesses who are ready to hire and expand their workforce,” department Executive Director Dane Eagle said in a prepared statement.

The move came after the state also announced that new unemployment applicants will have to follow a “work search” rule that requires claimants to apply for five jobs a week. That requirement will start June 1.

The state suspended the work-search requirement last year because of the pandemic.

Florida will become at least the 22nd state to end participation in the federal benefits program, which is scheduled to expire in September.

Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week in state benefits to unemployed people. Eagle has said people are taking advantage of the combined state and federal assistance, which is competitive with weekly pay at many restaurants and tourism businesses.

“You’ve seen restaurants that have had to close earlier or open later or close certain days of the week,” Eagle said during a recent news conference outside downtown Tallahassee’s Metro Deli. “All over the Panhandle I’ve seen signs that say, ‘Welcome to the new pandemic.’ The 2021 pandemic is unemployment, not being able to hire. So, we’ve got to put an end to that.”

But Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, quickly posted Monday on Twitter that ending the federal assistance is a “terrible idea that feeds into Florida’s already broken unemployment system.”

Since March 15, 2020, the start of the pandemic, the state has paid out more than $28.3 billion to 2.37 million unemployment claimants. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program has accounted for nearly $17.3 billion of the money distributed, while the state program has accounted for more than $5.9 billion.

The remainder of the money has come from two smaller federal programs known as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. The Department of Economic Opportunity said those programs will continue until Sept. 6. 

In announcing the end of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, the department released statements from a list of business lobbyists and business owners discussing challenges in finding employees.

“Even though our industry is open for business, we are facing a dire labor shortage,” Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association President and CEO Carol Dover said in a statement. “Strong demand, coupled with this staffing shortage, has left many businesses forced to limit operating days and hours in addition to reducing capacity in both food service and lodging.”

During the legislative session that ended April 30, the Senate pushed to increase the maximum state benefits to $375 a week. But while Florida’s current benefits are among the lowest in the nation, the Senate proposal died amid opposition from House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Sprowls and DeSantis said their focus was on getting people back to work.

The state’s unemployment rate in April was 4.8 percent, up from 4.7 percent in March. The number of people employed increased by 59,000 from March to April, while the workforce grew by 73,000 in the same time.

Meet the Editor

Wendy Weitzel, The Star’s digital editor, joined the news outlet in August 2021, as a reporter covering primarily Gulf County.

Prior to then, she interned for Oklahoma-based news wire service Gaylord News and for Oklahoma City-based online newspaper NonDoc.com during her four years at the University of Oklahoma, from which she graduated in May with degrees in online journalism and political science.

While at OU, Weitzel was selected as Carnegie-Knight News21 Investigative Fellow among 30 top journalism students from around the country. She also was senior editor managing a 12-person newsroom in coordination with Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit news organization in eastern Oklahoma.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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