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State unemployment system revamp begins moving in House

State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point
State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point(News Service of Florida)
Published: Apr. 2, 2021 at 7:23 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WWSB) - A plan to revamp Florida’s much-criticized online unemployment system is now moving on both sides of the Capitol, while advocates for workers continue to push lawmakers to consider increasing jobless benefits.

With few questions and little comment, the House Tourism, Infrastructure & Energy Subcommittee on Thursday unanimously backed a proposal (HB 1463) that would overhaul the less-than-decade-old CONNECT unemployment system and move to a cloud-based system.

The proposed CONNECT changes are part of a wide-ranging bill (HB 1463), sponsored by Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, that deals with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Dane Eagle, executive director of the department, has requested more than $73 million over the next two years to overhaul the CONNECT system.

The system, which started operating in 2013, largely crashed last spring when the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive job losses.

Funding for the work proposed in LaMarca’s bill would be addressed separately in budget talks. Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested the state use money from a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package for the work.

A similar proposal in the Senate (SB 1948) has been approved by the Commerce and Tourism Committee and awaits an appearance before the Appropriations Committee.

During Thursday’s meeting, advocates of workers supported the effort to revamp the system. But they also implored lawmakers to expand eligibility for unemployment benefits and increase the amount and duration of benefits, which are currently capped at $275 a week for 19 weeks. Those issues are not part of the bill.

“That’s a big component of modernization, and that’s the underlying policy that has yet to be addressed,” longtime social-services lobbyist Karen Woodall said. “You heard from constituents about the benefit amounts, the number of weeks and the amount, denials, people being told they weren’t eligible and not understanding that. And so, access to the unemployment system is equally important to modernize.”

Lobbyist Ida Eskamani, representing the group Florida Rising, said the state needs to consider extending benefits to 26 weeks.

“Unemployment, I think, often gets called a handout. It’s actually a tool to combat chronic unemployment,” Eskamani said. “Unemployment insurance is critical so that when folks are laid off, they have money so they can pay their bills, feed their kids, pay for internet and apply for jobs.”

The Senate, unlike the House, is advancing a measure (SB 1906) that would increase jobless benefits by up to $100 a week.

Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican who is sponsoring that measure, on Monday called his proposal a “good starting point” for talks, while warning about further raising a tax that businesses pay to fund the unemployment system.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has said the House is taking “a holistic look at our workforce.”

“Unemployment was extremely high during the lockdowns and the pandemics,” Sprowls told reporters last week. “We have rolled out robust bills that do deal with getting people back into the workforce. And that has been our focus.”

Two House bills (HB 207 and HB 1617) filed by Democrats, both seeking to raise the weekly maximum benefit to $500, have not been heard in committees.

LaMarca’s proposal also would create an Office of Economic Accountability and Transparency within the Department of Economic Opportunity, change Eagle’s title to secretary and add Eagle and his successors to the board of directors for Enterprise Florida and CareerSource Florida.

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