ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Pointing back to similar actions he took as governor over a decade ago as precedent, Rep. Charlie Crist added his voice to calls from Democratic lawmakers to current Gov. Ron DeSantis to extend both the amount of money and the length of time residents can claim unemployment benefits.
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Florida is considered to have some of the least generous unemployment benefits in the country, with a maximum payout of $275 weekly for 12 weeks.
On a Zoom conference call on Wednesday, Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor said that she was told in a recent conversation with officials with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity that they did not have the authority to make such a change.
“They said that’s in statute and we don’t have the authority do to that,” Castor said. “They’re wrong. That’s incorrect.”
As an example of how the state has more flexibility, Castor cited the fact that DEO executive director Ken Lawson signed an order last week that temporarily waived the one-week waiting period before people can start to collect benefits. A requirement on applicants showing that they had looked for immediate work has also been temporarily waived.
When he was the Republican governor of Florida a decade ago during the Great Recession, St. Petersburg-based Congressman Charlie Crist twice invoked his emergency powers to help citizens receive extended temporary unemployment benefits, even though he said there was the possibility that he could have been sued for doing so.
Now with a record number of Floridians needing unemployment benefits, he’s calling on DeSantis to the same thing.
“I was pretty sure if I tried to do that as governor …there was the possibility of – even the probability of a suit against me for doing so,” Crist said this morning. “But I understood what the statute said.”
Crist served as Florida’s Attorney General for four years (2003-2007) and says in that capacity he was used to getting sued. But he said that dealing with those concerns are part of the job.
“You have to have the courage and the strength and know what’s right and be driven by what’s right and what’s legal,” he said. “And what’s legal in this is for the governor to do exactly what I did and go ahead and extend additional benefits to the people in a time of need. “
At least two other governors have issued executive orders regarding unemployment benefits.
In Georgia, Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed an executive order on March 26 extending the length of time an individual can collect benefits from 14 weeks to 26 weeks.
And Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an agreement with the Department of Labor last week to grant benefits to include independent contractors, gig and low-wage workers who cannot work because of the pandemic. That agreement also extended benefit payments from 26 to 39 weeks.
Crist said that he wasn’t trying to be partisan in calling for DeSantis to extend unemployment benefits.
“I’m not offering this as criticism. I’m offering it as friendly encouragement. For someone who has been governor, I can empathize with where the governor is right now,” he said. “These decisions aren’t easy, but it’s pretty crystal clear to me what is right and what is just.”
Michele Evermore with the National Employment Law Project said on the call that the average weekly unemployment benefit around the country is around $366, while Florida’s average is $251 (the $275 amount is the maximum anyone on unemployment in Florida can receive).
While Democrats continue to push DeSantis to be more generous with Florida’s unemployment program, an even bigger story right now is how difficult it has become for Floridians to register to qualify for unemployment benefits.
With the state’s unemployment website having issues and phone lines tied up for hours, the state is making paper copy unemployment applications available, leading in some cases to chaotic lines in South Florida where people are not able to observe social distancing.
The Department of Economic Opportunity says that beginning this week more than 500 people will support the Reemployment Assistance claims process through contracts with customer call centers, CareerSource center staff, and state employees.
Also, the state says that by next week those staffing numbers will double when additional employees are added handle claims.