September 27, 2023

The Jobless See a Lifeline at Risk

In the year he has been collecting unemployment checks in Flagler County, where joblessness remains stubbornly high, Mr. Dudenhoeffer, 61, has not even gotten his foot in the door, despite his almost daily efforts to find a job, any job. No interviews. No phone calls. No e-mails. No flicker of hope.

Without charity and his $247 weekly unemployment check, he would lose it all, he said, starting with his mobile home and his car, a lifeline in a county with no public transportation.

“I sold my 9-millimeter gun,” Mr. Dudenhoeffer said offhandedly, after rattling off the possessions — coin collection, gold jewelry — he had sold to stay afloat. “It was too tempting to blow my brains out.” He added, “I am just so depressed.”

For the jobless like Mr. Dudenhoeffer, the outlook does not look immediately brighter.

The Florida House of Representatives approved a bill in March that would establish the deepest and most far-reaching cuts in unemployment benefits in the nation. Like the law signed in Michigan on Monday, the measure would reduce the number of weeks the unemployed could collect benefits from the standard 26 weeks to 20.

But the House proposal in Florida — in a high-unemployment state that already has some of the lowest benefits — takes it one step further by tying benefits to the unemployment rate. If the rate falls, so do the number of weeks of benefits. If the rate dips below 5 percent, the jobless would collect only 12 weeks of benefits, the lowest level.

This has workers worried in Florida, where the unemployment rate, while continuing to inch down, is 11.5 percent, considerably higher than the nation’s rate of 8.9 percent. Michigan’s rate is 10.4 percent.

The Senate is taking a less stringent approach in its bill, choosing not to reduce the number of weeks or tie benefits to the unemployment rate. The two chambers are expected to resolve their differences within the next few weeks.

The House version, which would take effect Aug. 1 if signed into law and affect people who apply after that date, would also make it easier for businesses to fire employees, who would then not be eligible for unemployment benefits.

The bill’s sponsor, Representative Doug Holder, a Sarasota Republican, said creating jobs is pivotal to keeping Floridians off the unemployment rolls. Businesses need the state’s help in doing that, Mr. Holder said. The average number of weeks people remain on unemployment compensation is 17.7 weeks, he added, and that means most people would be unaffected, at least in terms of how long they would collect benefits. More than 535,000 Floridians were receiving benefits as of March 26.

“Florida is positioning itself to be the most business-friendly state in the country,” said Representative Holder, whose bill would also help weed out those who do not have legitimate claims. “Our unemployment compensation trust fund has gone broke. We have to replenish it. The best way to do that and to right a capsized economy is to provide more jobs.”

Others disagree.

“To talk about cutting the maximum number of weeks down to as low as 12 is basically accepting as a certainty that lots more people will run out of benefits before they find employment and that they will go many weeks without any income,” said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for workers. “It’s cruel as a matter of public policy, and it’s really kind of wrongheaded in terms of the local economy.”

But the business community, led by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, has made passing the House version of the bill a priority, contending that businesses would benefit greatly from relief from the escalating tax to pay for jobless compensation. This year the tax on business owners jumped to $72.10 a year for each employee from $25.20, still relatively low, but it is expected to climb steeply because Florida’s unemployment fund is running a $2.1 billion deficit. Thirty other states are facing deficits in their unemployment programs.

“This is our thorniest problem this year,” said Bill Herrle, Florida executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “There is no happy solution. It’s intractable. We have an enormous problem. Our take is that big problems require solutions from all the participants.”

Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who has made job creation a cornerstone of his tenure, supports the House approach.

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