The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for everyone. No matter what, our lives have been impacted and changed forever. The way we do business has changed. The way we shop has changed. If so many things have changed, we must also consider changing how our government operates.
It is time we change the way we manage unemployment in Florida.
There is no proven playbook for a worldwide pandemic of this magnitude, and Florida’s unemployment system was not built for an overnight increase of millions of Floridians. Our system should be rebuilt using modern-day solutions, like a scalable, functional and secure website that provides Floridians with the system they deserve. For one, people should be able to use any device to access their unemployment claim, not only a certain web browser or cell phone. It is 2020 and this is not an unreasonable expectation for a software program of this magnitude.
But, this is not just about an inadequate system. The state agency that oversees unemployment in Florida, and the contractor who did the work on the system, absolutely could have and should have done a better job and been better prepared to handle this level of emergency. The state should explore options to make the system and the people of Florida whole, and this could include working with the Office of Attorney General, Ashley Moody.
So many elected leaders would rather fire off partisan bumper sticker messages than work together to help their constituents, but that just won’t do. We need bold solutions that work, and that’s why we must revamp the way unemployment works in our state. Florida’s current system was designed to help people get back to work after the 2008 recession. Our world has changed, with increases in costs of living and adding “gig workers,” such as Uber and Lyft drivers and food and grocery delivery drivers, to our society. It is time that we increase the amount of weekly benefits available for everyone, including making our unemployment system more accessible to these workers. There should be a formula that is based on the cost of living, because current rates do not even cover minimal rent. The national average rent in 2019 was $1,465. Fort Lauderdale’s average was more than $1,900. We must also extend how long Floridians can collect unemployment benefits, not just how much. As we have seen during the past five months, tough economic times can last much longer than 12 weeks.
My office has fought to help more than 600 people, within our district or not, secure the benefits they deserve. Imagine if all 120 members of the Florida House of Representatives came together to address the problem and commit to changing how the system works?
For far too long, both political parties have been pushing agendas and virtue signaling along the way. When one side supports an issue, the other side becomes staunchly opposed. This is just plain foolish and accomplishes nothing. Life doesn’t work that way, and neither should public service.
We see divisiveness too often in our society today. Now we are seeing it as COVID-19 has affected our residents, put people out of work and shuttered a once-booming economy. There shouldn’t be anything political about a pandemic. This especially rings true for our unemployment system. Those who have applied, received or are still waiting for benefits are real people, not pieces on a chessboard to advance one person or one party’s political agenda.
Here are the facts: As of Aug. 5 when I wrote this letter, there were 3.44 million claims submitted to DEO. Of those claims, 1.91 million Floridians are eligible based on current Florida unemployment laws and the state has paid 95 percent of those, approximately 1.82 million people. But, these numbers do not tell the whole story. There are thousands of Floridians who have slipped through the cracks of our fragmented unemployment system. We clearly can do better for Florida families.
As a lifelong Floridian, I am confident that most of us know what it is like to experience natural disasters — how to be resilient and recover. COVID-19 has been a worldwide category-five hurricane making direct landfall and has lasted for nearly four months. This virus is nonpartisan and does not see red or blue, so it is about time we all stop counting political points. We are all in this together.
Chip LaMarca is the state representative for District 93, which largely includes all of Broward County east of Dixie Highway and north of Port Everglades.