Orlando Sentinel: Senate Inaction Makes Florida’s Jobless Suffer

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Washington, July 28, 2020 | comments

In the last four months, over three million Florida workers lost their jobs and filed for unemployment, victims of the economic crisis created by COVID-19. Most struggled — and many still struggle — to obtain the benefits they are owed, victims of an unemployment system that successive leaders in Tallahassee allowed to atrophy through a combination of indifference, incompetence, and ideology. 

Nevertheless, when benefits are finally paid, they are a lifeline for unemployed workers, enabling them to put food on the table, make rent or mortgage payments, and cover medical expenses — a necessity given that many workers lost their employer-sponsored health coverage along with their jobs. This spending, in turn, has prevented an economic recession in Florida from devolving into economic collapse.     

Sadly, Florida workers whose lives and livelihoods have been upended by COVID-19 are now at risk of being victimized again. This time, the perpetrator won’t be the virus itself, or crashing websites and unanswered phone calls at Florida’s unemployment agency. Instead, the culprit will be Congress — and, in particular, the Republican-led Senate. 

It should never have come to this.  In March, Congress — on a bipartisan basis — approved a $600 weekly supplement to state unemployment benefits. This was especially vital in Florida, where the unemployment system is one of the stingiest in the nation, providing a maximum of $275 per week. By comparison, that figure is $365 in Georgia, $521 in Texas, and $539 in Oklahoma — three states with Republican governors and legislatures. Thanks to federal action, jobless Floridians have been receiving up to $875 a week, rather than $275. For families, that’s the difference between being able to make ends meet — and not.

This federal benefit expires on July 31, less than a week away. In May, the Democratic-controlled House in which I serve passed a bill to extend this $600 through the end of 2020. The response from the Senate and the White House was to do nothing and, as COVID cases began to surge in Florida and other states, to keep doing nothing.   

Why the delay? Too many in the GOP believed the virus would magically disappear, businesses and schools would safely reopen, and economic life would return to normal — with millions of unemployed Americans heading back to their old jobs. That’s what we all want. But any public health expert could tell you it was wishful thinking, disconnected from reality. 

There’s a darker reason why some of my Republican colleagues resist extending this $600, or insist the amount be reduced. They claim out-of-work Americans would rather collect an unemployment check than earn a paycheck. The federal benefit creates a perverse incentive, they proclaim, while continuing to draw their own taxpayer-funded salary.  

This breathtakingly cynical view of American workers doesn’t comport with my experience. Every day since this crisis began, laid-off Floridians call my office in anguish. They ask for our help in navigating Florida’s maddening bureaucracy and obtaining the unemployment benefits to which they are entitled. Many confess their family won’t be able to pay the bills if the federal supplement isn’t renewed.

These are proud people, suffering because of circumstances beyond their control. It’s clear they would rather be working, even if their take-home pay is less than the amount they would receive from unemployment. The problem is their previous jobs may not exist anymore, because so many businesses are shuttered. Or they fear getting sick at work and spreading the virus to their loved ones.  Or they can’t work because they must care for a child whose school or day care is closed.

The White House and Senate Republicans, having sat on their hands for more than two months, now grudgingly accept that unemployment benefits need to be extended. But it’s not clear they can get their act together before the deadline. If they don’t, Florida’s unemployed workers will, once again, become the victims of a toxic mix of government indifference, incompetence, and misguided ideology.

Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat, represents Florida’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This op-ed was first published by the Orlando Sentinel.

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