New Limits on Jobless Benefits Moves Ahead in House

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Breaking along party lines, a Republican-dominated House committee Thursday okayed a proposed rewrite of state unemployment compensation laws – cutting eligibility for Florida’s jobless and making it harder to claim benefits.

Representatives of the state’s business organizations said little, instead mostly just nodding as the House Finance and Taxation committee approved the legislation (HB 7005) on a 16-6 vote. Democrats sided with labor unions and advocates for low-income Floridians who warned that with unemployment nearly 12 percent and more than 900,000 jobs lost since the recession, the legislation could prove punishing to those out of work.

But Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said the legislation was needed to help businesses struggling to meet rising unemployment tax rates caused by having shed so many jobs. He likened the relationship between workers and their bosses to a marriage, saying there needs to be some give-and-take.

According to Florida Revenue Department figures, 75,832 employers went out of business last year.

“There is no employee without an employer,” Fresen said. “We have to assure there is a climate where businesses can grow.”

But Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, said the GOP was effectively advancing a “socialized bill,” because it shifts costs away from businesses by limiting benefits to unemployed workers. In turn, many of these jobless Floridians will be forced onto state Medicaid rolls and other taxpayer-financed assistance programs, Randolph said.

Another Democrat, Rep. Joe Abruzzo of Wellington, said he liked some features aimed at denying benefits to those gaming the system. But Abruzzo said he couldn’t support reducing the number of weeks Floridians could qualify for unemployment pay.

“That, to me, is too much – and too burdensome for families,” Abruzzo said.

The legislation mirrors a proposal unveiled earlier this month by Gov. Rick Scott, which reduces the duration of state unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks, while maintaining the current maximum payment of $275-a-week.

Like Scott, the House plan also would tie benefits to the state’s unemployment rate. The period a jobless worker could receive a check would fall to a maximum of 12 weeks if unemployment hits 5 percent or less.

The reductions would only affect Floridians joining the jobless rolls after the legislation becomes law. Federal unemployment benefits, which currently extend as long as 99 weeks, could still kick-in when state coverage is exhausted. Critics pointed out, though, that the most generous federal standards are scheduled to end this year.

The legislation, sponsored by Economic Development and Tourism subcommittee Chairman Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, emerged from recommendations pushed by a business coalition, including the National Federation of Independent Business, the Florida Retail Federation, Associated Industries of Florida and the state Chamber of Commerce. The Senate version of the legislation is (SB 728) is scheduled to get its first hearing Tuesday in the Commerce and Tourism Committee.

Along with reducing benefits, Holder's measure also adds new authority for employers to challenge a fired or laid-off worker’s claim. The drive to change the system is prompted by business groups panicking over rate hikes – with this year’s minimum levy scheduled to climb from $25 per worker to $72.10 per worker this spring. Employers pay the full rate.

In June, another $10 will be added to these payments to cover interest owed on the $1.8 billion the state has borrowed from the federal government the past two years to maintain the state’s depleted trust fund for jobless benefits. The Obama administration has proposed allowing states to postpone these interest payments, but ruling Republicans in the House and Senate instead say they are intent on tightening the state’s system.

Holder defended the measure’s attempts at toughening the standards for jobless workers seeking benefits and requiring those seeking benefits to undergo a skills review.

“This is a great way to give unemployed Floridians a hand up, and not a hand out,” Holder said.

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