Florida House Republicans decline to raise unemployment benefits


House Republicans on Tuesday rejected Democratic efforts to increase unemployment assistance, days after Gov. Ron DeSantis opposed boosting benefits that are among the lowest in the nation.

The House voted 77-39 to reject a proposed amendment that would have raised maximum unemployment payments by $100 a week. It also voted 76-39 to kill a separate proposal that would have increased the number of weeks benefits are offered.

The votes came as the House took up a wide-ranging proposal (HB 1463) that includes upgrading the state’s online unemployment system, which largely crashed last spring after becoming inundated with claims during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would include starting to move the troubled CONNECT system to a cloud-based service.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, sought to boost the maximum unemployment benefit from $275 a week to $375 a week. She said the pandemic showed that current payments are not enough for unemployed people to survive and get back on their feet.

“This is the right thing to do,” Eskamani said. “We gave a big tax break to businesses. The least we can do is make sure workers get a fair share, an opportunity to have benefits they can actually survive on and benefits that will make us reflect more of the national average.”

The tax break Eskamani cited was in a bill (SB 50) that DeSantis signed into law late Monday. The bill will require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians. The estimated $1 billion a year in revenue will initially be used to replenish an unemployment compensation trust fund that is ordinarily funded through a tax on businesses.

The Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved a proposal (SB 1906) to increase jobless benefits, which were cut in 2011 to blunt a major increase in unemployment taxes on businesses. DeSantis, however, expressed opposition to such an increase.

“Increase benefits? Look, no, I mean, I think we’re getting people back to work,” DeSantis said when asked by a reporter during an appearance in Lakeland.

“You see or hear the stories, there’s businesses (that) need more. You know, our goal is to get people back to work. I think there’s a lot of demand right now,” DeSantis continued. “I’d like to get that unemployment rate below 4 percent if we can. But it’s going to take some of these inhibitions being moved off, and us being able to operate all of our industries. But there is demand in the economy for hiring, and that’s a good thing, much different than it was a year ago.”

On the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, said the “premise” of Eskamani’s amendment to increase benefits was misleading.

“There are help wanted signs all over the state,” Gregory said.

“As we travel around the state, we see them,” he continued. “You hear of Southeast Florida, right now, and take a job in a service industry in a restaurant and get a $400 signing bonus just to take the job. There are jobs that are double the minimum wage available in my district now.”

As part of budget talks over the weekend, the House and Senate agreed to put $56.6 million into the 2021-2022 spending plan for continued work needed to operate the troubled unemployment system. Meanwhile, another $36 million has been proposed to overhaul the CONNECT system.

Dane Eagle, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, has said that retaining the CONNECT system, which cost $81 million to set up a decade ago, is “not an option.”

COVID Liability protection taken up by house


The House glanced at a Senate bill on Thursday that would establish COVID-19 liability protections for businesses and healthcare providers such as nursing homes.

Lawmakers asked few questions before rolling the bill (SB 72) onto third reading. Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes is the bill sponsor.

Under the proposal, a plaintiff would need to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant acted with “gross negligence” when filing a COVID-19 related lawsuit.

The bill’s protections would become applicable if a defendant made a “good-faith effort” to substantially comply with government health guidelines.

Proponents of the measure contend businesses and providers navigated the pandemic’s early stages with conflicting health guidance and limited supplies.

They fear predatory lawsuits are a looming threat.

Critics, meanwhile, argue the legislation goes too far while offering too little to frontline workers.

Critics also take issue with a provision that would require plaintiffs to submit a physician’s affidavit, attesting that the defendant’s action or inaction led to damages, injury, or death.

Physicians, they argue, cannot make that determination within a reasonable degree of medical certainty.

The massive bill comes after Brandes merged two COVID-19 liability bills into one during the final committee stop.

Originally, the proposals to shield healthcare providers and businesses were filed as separate measures.

The move to merge, Brandes said, was strategic.

“It’s easier to defend one fortress than to guard two,” Brandes told members of the Senate Rules Committee.

Throughout the committee process, outnumbered Democrats have filed dozens of amendments without success.

If signed into law, the bill would take effect immediately and apply retroactively.

Earlier this month, the House passed a bill (HB 7)  that would provide liability protections solely to Florida businesses facing COVID-19-related lawsuits.

However, Sprowls later agreed to the new Senate language during negotiations.

“We anticipate picking up that bill, passing it, and getting it to the Governor’s desk as soon as possible,” Sprowls told reporters.