Senate Moves Less-Toothy Unemployment Comp Bill
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Protests over a state House bill that would cut unemployment benefits by six weeks spilled over into a Senate committee meeting Wednesday, even though the Senate’s version of unemployment compensation reform does not include that provision.
About 120 unemployed workers who gathered at the Capitol in Tallahassee to protest the House bill, later packed the Senate Judiciary Committee. They left en masse after an amendment expanding unemployment benefits was voted down, singing on the way out, “This Little Light of Mine.” One person also shouted, “We’ll be back!”
The amendment, offered by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, would have counted a worker’s last quarter of work when considering eligibility for unemployment benefits. Supporters of the amendment say it would modernize Florida’s unemployment insurance system, created in the 1930s, bringing it in line with the computer age.
“This will simply credit the worker for the most recent quarter of work,” Joyner said.
Joyner said her amendment would help draw down $143 million in federal funds and is a measure already adopted by 38 other states, but the original bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, and business groups opposed to the amendment noted that it would mean an extra $61 million per year in benefits.
“This amendment is a benefit expansion, it’s not a modernization of the system,” said Lance Lozano of the Florida United Businesses Association.
The amendment ultimately failed in a voice vote, prompting the walkout. For her part, Detert was unfazed by the demonstration.
“I enjoyed the singing, that was good,” she said.
The bill does not include the elimination of benefit weeks, but Detert said the two bills are otherwise similar. Her bill would implement a skills test for unemployed workers to conduct before receiving benefits and help match them up with a job. It would also lower the legal threshold for businesses to dispute a claim brought by a worker who was fired for cause from “willful“ misconduct to “conscious“ misconduct.
The move for reform was sparked by the draining of the state’s unemployment compensation trust fund -- paid for entirely by businesses -- brought on by the imploding economy. Florida racked up $2 billion in federal loans, of which businesses are paying $61 million in special assessments this year to pay off the interest.
Small businesses paying the minimum unemployment compensation tax rate of about $25 per worker per quarter last year, also saw their rates nearly triple this year to about $75 per worker. Business owners have pressed legislators to act on unemployment compensation reform to prevent further job-killing assessments and rate increases.
Detert says her bill not only cuts cost by limiting the amount of benefits paid out by the trust fund to only those workers who deserve unemployment benefits, but also helps move people off compensation and back into the labor force.
“We’re not looking to hurt unemployed people who have lost their job through no fault of their own,” Detert said.
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