Waiver extended by state officials


Unemployed Floridians will continue receiving benefits even if they are not able to search for work as state officials are extending the waiver.

On Tuesday, The Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) announced the move. Moreover, the waiver effect may remain until May 29th. It applies to all work search and works registration requirements.

The DEO and Governor Ron DeSantis will also keep in effect a separate waiver; removing the 1-week waiting requirement to apply for unemployment after losing a job. Furthermore, the waiting week waiver is extended until the 26th of June.

Several of the state’s unemployment mandates were put on hold last year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With so many Florida workers impacted, state officials attempted to remove some of those barriers to receiving state support, even as Florida’s unemployment application system collapsed under pressure due to a surge in jobless Floridians.

Governor Ron DeSantis agreed to continue extending those waivers. Even though the CONNECT system Florida’s unemployment apparatus has since improved, it’s still hit multiple bumps along the road, shutting down again as recently as mid-April.

In addition to that, Governor Ron DeSantis has highlighted Florida’s fairly strong economic performance through the recent stage of the pandemic. However, the Governor has considered that parts of the state are still suffering, as indicated by the waiver renewal.

The unemployment news comes as DeSantis extended Florida’s overall state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That order was issued in March 2020; despite Governor DeSantis’s push in recent months to reopen the state, he’s kept the state of emergency in effect.

That emergency order will remain in effect another 60 days.

In order to claim unemployment benefits, individuals must still use the CONNECT system every two weeks to request that assistance. “In so doing, claimants will confirm that they are still unemployed and acknowledge that you are able and available for work,” the DEO explains.

Online tax plan – Florida’s business survival amid COVID 19


Tax on purchases made by Floridians to be collected by online retailers won’t slow a deal between state House and Senate leaders.

According to Senate President Wilton Simpson, the proposal to use currently uncollected online sales tax money to replenish the state’s unemployment compensation trust fund is going forward.

On Thursday, Trilby Republican said that “It is very important for me and the Speaker,”, referring to House Speaker Chris Sprowls. “It’s, I believe, probably the single largest tax break for small businesses that we would probably ever pass, $4.5 billion in the next four years.”

Due to the demand for jobless benefits during the COVID 19 outbreak, Florida businesses are to face increases in unemployment taxes that took effect in January, with more increases expected in the coming years unless some other source of money is used to replenish the unemployment system trust fund.

Simpson said the deal that he and Sprowls announced March 10 will stimulate the economy.

“It’s going to get a lot of workers back to work much quicker. Suddenly, the small businesses don’t have to pay that tax,” Simpson said.  “When you add up these key components of that stimulus, the tax cut, the stimulus of the additional money that we can put into our system on roads, infrastructure projects, that’s something that we believe collectively will create a very good scenario for the economy for the state of Florida.”

On 2nd March during the annual Legislative session, Simpson brought forward the possibility of using federal stimulus money to replenish the unemployment fund. Congress later passed a $1.9 trillion package that is expected to funnel $9 billion to $10 billion to Florida’s state government.

However, on March 10th,  Simpson and Sprowls announced the plan to tie replenishing the fund with requiring out-of-state retailers to collect and remit Florida sales taxes — a longtime priority of Florida businesses, who say they face unfair competition from out-of-state companies.

Florida economists have estimated that the sales-tax collection proposal could generate $973.6 million in state general revenue in the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal year and $1.08 billion in each following year.

Presently, retailers that have a physical presence in Florida must collect and remit sales taxes for items sold in the state. Through what is sort of an honor system, Florida residents are supposed to submit sales taxes when they are not collected by out-of-state retailers. However, few Floridians comply with that requirement, and the proposal would require out-of-state retailers to collect and remit the taxes.

Last week, Governor Ron DeSantis proposed a $4.1 billion plan for spending a portion of the federal money headed to Florida. However, he did not include addressing the business unemployment tax in the plan, which included money for seaports, roads, combating sea-level rise, recruiting new members of the Florida National Guard, increasing Florida tourism marketing, and providing $1,000 bonuses for first-responders.

Questions have been raised about whether federal money can be used to fund tax breaks. Governor DeSantis’s representative said the Governor’s office is anticipating more federal guidance on the use of the money for things such as the unemployment trust fund.

The day DeSantis released his stimulus spending plan, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody joined 20 other Republican attorneys general in signing a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen that raised the issue about using stimulus money for tax breaks.

“We ask that you confirm that the American Rescue Plan Act does not prohibit states from generally providing tax relief,” said the letter, led by attorneys general from West Virginia, Arizona, and Georgia.

The provision in the Act requires states to repay federal funds equal to the amount used directly or indirectly to “offset a reduction in the net tax revenue of such state or territory resulting from a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax — by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise — or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week President Joe Biden didn’t expect the money to be used for tax cuts.

“Well, the original purpose of the state and local funding was to keep cops, firefighters, other essential employees at work and employed, and it wasn’t intended to cut taxes,” Psaki said in a press briefing. “So, I think he certainly hopes that that’s how the funding is used.”

But Psaki added the issue will likely be addressed by a new White House coordinator who will oversee how the $1.9 trillion package is carried out.

While business groups have lobbied for years to try to force out-of-state online retailers to collect and remit sales taxes, the plan by Simpson and Sprowls also faces criticism.

Some opponents have maintained it would amount to a tax hike on Floridians who buy goods on the internet, while others say the new revenue should be used to increase the $275-a-week in unemployment benefits that Florida provides to jobless workers, among the lowest amounts in the nation.

Unemployment and fraud in Florida: an absolute nightmare amid COVID 19


The unemployment crisis in Florida in 2020 pushed Florida’s jobless agency to enforce anti-fraud efforts that added months of delays and frustrations for those waiting for their benefits.

The victims of COVID 19, pregnant women, and those caring for children at home were denied benefits because they weren’t “able and available” for work under state law. Jobless Floridians with simple discrepancies on applications saw their claims locked, delaying payments by weeks or months.

Meagan Gross, 30, said that “They never told us to actually help people.” She also said, “It was how to send it to adjudication, how to lock their account due to fraud.”

As legislators struggle with the fallout from the state’s unemployment disaster, some are calling for a re-evaluation of the strict anti-fraud measures championed for years by Republican legislators and former Governor Rick Scott.

The state briefly relaxed some fraud prevention measures at the start of the pandemic. Department of Economic Opportunity employed strict anti-fraud rules, even if it meant delaying or denying payments to qualified Floridians, according to former employees, call center workers hired by the agency, and state lawmakers interviewed by the Herald/Times.

Caitlin Polidoro, 29, who worked at a call center from March until September, said that if a claimant gave identifying information that was in any way inconsistent with their application, she was required to hang up on them without saying why. That’s even if the person had spent as many as eight hours on hold, which was common during the worst parts of the unemployment crisis.

“If it was a Darryl Johnson Jr. and he put Darryl Johnson II on his application, we weren’t allowed to help them,” Polidoro said. “They only had one chance.”

State Senator Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said he wants a study of the ways the Department of Economic Opportunity’s unemployment website, known as CONNECT, denied benefits to Floridians.

Pizzo said the state didn’t want pregnant women and COVID-19-positive people in public during the height of the pandemic, so denying them benefits did not make sense.

“Why would we use that as a disqualifier?” Pizzo said. “You just can’t defend against it.”

DeSantis says Florida will investigate unemployment website contract

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said on May 4, 2020, that his inspector general will investigate the contract with Deloitte Consulting to produce the state’s unemployment website, which has failed repeatedly.

Governor Ron DeSantis said Florida’s tough approach on fraud was better than other states, though it has not produced any data for comparison.

“Some people were saying, ‘Hey, just pay everyone that comes through the door, and then try to figure it out on the back end who was eligible and who was not,’ ” he said. “You have like these Nigerian princes that are just looting some of these systems, so we didn’t want that to happen in Florida.

“I think that we maintained the integrity of it, and so that will end up saving the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Emilie Oglesby said state and federal laws required them to screen applicants whose personal situations might make them unable to work.

“If a claimant is not able and available to work because of personal reasons, then they do not meet this eligibility requirement,” Oglesby said.

In response to questions, the Department of Economic Opportunity did not say whether the fraud system was taken offline last year to speed up payments. Nor would it disclose how many referrals for the fraud it has made to law enforcement.

“The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity takes Reemployment Assistance fraud seriously,” Oglesby said in a statement.

The state is also trying to get money back from some Floridians who obtained benefits. Erin Taylor, 40, of Newberry said she applied in late March last year because she was caring for her daughter, whose kindergarten classes were closed.

Despite disclosing that on her application, she received state and federal benefits until October, when she returned to work. But in February, the state informed her that she now owes $1,200.

The reason? She “was not actively seeking employment because of providing care for a family member due to the pandemic,” the Department of Economic Opportunity letter states.

She’s appealed the decision.

“I get they’re wanting to crack down on fraud,” Taylor said. But “it should not be this hard just to put food on the table and pay the bills.”

Call center workers said they wondered why people who seemed to most need the benefits weren’t allowed to receive them.

“If someone was hospitalized due to COVID, it was like, well, they weren’t able to work,” said Gross, the contractor who fielded calls. She said CONNECT’s frequent malfunctions made the situation worse.

“People with any kind of disability, or language barrier, or pregnancy or health issue were discriminated against.”

Polidoro said the department took a strict line on people who divulged personal details. Call center workers couldn’t ask if someone was pregnant, for example, but if it came up, they were required to flag their case, which would stop payments and lead to a lengthy arbitration process.

“They specifically told us in training to create these issues and to gather as much information as possible,” Polidoro said. “We weren’t allowed to tell them.”

Polidoro said she was required to flag people who did not have a working vehicle, were students, pregnant, sick, or home taking care of their children. Her recollection was confirmed by department training records.

“Obviously, no one had child care at one point, because everything was closed down,” she said. “It never made any sense to us. It was just what we were told to do.”

Sales tax to be collected on all purchases made by Floridians

Sales Tax

Sales tax to be collected by out-of-state  on purchases made by Floridians as announced by House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson that this is a Wednesday plan. The sales taxes collection comes amid the state’s unemployment compensation system.

The joint announcement may bring in almost $1 billion a year for Florida. The money is said to be put into a trust fund which will be used to pay unemployment benefits.That trust fund, which is funded through taxes on businesses, became depleted during the past year because of huge job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Wednesday announcement, the rise in demand for the benefits caused a tax increase on businesses that took effect in January. As per projection, tax rates shall be continuing to increase in the upcoming years to replenish the funds.

“Our plan makes responsible use of the resources we have so that we can rescue Florida business owners from a major tax increase,” Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said in a prepared statement. “Florida businesses must be able to retain and hire employees and contribute to our recovering economy.

For business groups that have been lobbied for years to force out-of-state retailers to collect and remit sales taxes on purchases made by the citizens, this announcement can be seen as a major win.

As of now, retailers that have a physical presence in Florida must collect and remit sales taxes for items sold in the state. But that doesn’t apply to retailers without a physical presence in the state.

Practically, consumers are supposed to pay sales taxes when they buy goods from those out-of-state retailers, but only few do. In-state businesses argue the situation creates unfair competition — especially as consumers have increasingly turned to the internet to make purchases.

On Wednesday Simpson said, “Under the law, online purchases are not tax-free. Every time government turns a blind eye on collecting taxes, we put a greater burden on the businesses and Floridians who are following the law,”.

“Making sure we are collecting existing taxes that are owed is the right thing to do. Rather than treating additional revenue that is already owed to the state as a windfall for the spending priorities of the day, the prudent thing to do is to reinvest these funds in our Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, helping businesses survive a situation no one could have anticipated, and shoring up benefits for the struggling Floridians who have lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic.”

Legislators in recent years have repeatedly taken into consideration the requirement of out-of-state retailers to collect and remit sales taxes but have not passed legislation. The issue has been tricky politically, in part, because it could be viewed as a tax increase by consumers.

However, supporters of the change were bolstered by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court’s choice in a case known as South Dakota v. Wayfair. The decision against Wayfair, a large online retailer with no physical presence in South Dakota, overturned a “physical presence test,” expanding states’ abilities to collect sales taxes.

Florida economists have estimated that the change could result in the collection of an additional $973.6 million in the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal year and $1.08 billion in each following year, according to the House and Senate.

Simpson has been a vocal supporter of requiring the taxes to be collected, and a bill on the issue (SB 50) was scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Thursday. But the announcement early Wednesday evening said the bill will be delayed to draft an amendment making clear the additional money would go to the unemployment compensation trust fund.

The House version of the bill (HB 15) will go before the House Ways & Means Committee on Thursday.

Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson issued a statement Wednesday evening praising the plan..

“Today’s welcome announcement benefits Florida’s main street businesses by leveling the playing field on sales tax collections, while at the same time providing much needed relief from a looming $713 million tax increase on employers,” Wilson said.

$275 for 12 weeks; weekly unemployment payment for Floridians

275 - unemployed payment

On Tuesday, Senate President Wilton Simpson put forward that he would be willing to raise the weekly unemployment payments during the 2021 Legislative Session for Florida.

Currently, Floridians on unemployment are eligible to receive $275 per week for 12 weeks.

Senate President William Simpson told the reporters after his Opening Day address that said he would be “willing to embrace an increase.”

“We need to take a serious look at bringing that $275 up to something higher than that,” Simpson said.

While the Trilby Republican stopped short of offering a dollar figure, he acknowledged that self-sustainment on $275 a week is a dated concept. Moreover, he also said that a minimum wage of $15 at 40 hours a week would amount to around $600 payment.

However, William Simpson offered a few details – he recommended that Florida could go through the unemployment models of nearby states. He also stated that a system would be needed to wipe out unemployment fraud.

“There’s been so much fraud in the employment system throughout this country,” Simpson said. “We’ve had some in Florida also, where folks have come in and obviously scammed the system.”

William Simpsons’ remarks come as lawmakers force Florida’s unemployment system under a microscope.

Once described by Governor Ron DeSantis as a “jalopy in the Daytona 500,” Florida’s CONNECT online system struggled amid the COVID-19-induced spike in unemployment.

The failure left thousands of Floridians without benefits for weeks, even months. It also prompted an investigation into the system.

Repairing the so-called “jalopy” won’t be cheap.

Created in 2013 under then-Governor Rick Scott state officials estimate more than $73 million is needed to revamp the system over the next two years.

“I think if you can cut the fraud out and gain some efficiencies and not have to spend, you know, $70 million every five years to get a new system that can’t do the job, then we can certainly afford to look at increasing the $275 to a more reasonable amount,” William Simpson said.