Miami Herald: “We were right to raise Florida’s minimum wage. Now it’s time to increase unemployment benefits”

Last year, Floridians overwhelmingly approved a much-needed constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage statewide. It will increase, eventually, $15 an hour. The increase was long overdue, and we saw broad support for it from folks across the political spectrum.

This coming legislative session, the Legislature is faced with its next great task to provide meaningful support for hardworking families. It’s past time to strengthen Florida’s unemployment system, which is one of the weakest in the nation. Last year, our unemployment-insurance system was shown to be incredibly flawed from top to bottom.

Leaders on all sides of the aisle have called Florida’s unemployment system “designed to fail,” “jalopy” and a “s— sandwich.” But despite the state’s high costs of living, under current law, Floridians without jobs only are able to receive up to $275 a week. Translate that into an hourly wage, and it’s only $6.88 an hour for full-time work — far below Florida’s current minimum wage of $8.56 an hour.

Moreover, those benefits only last for up to 12 weeks, painfully short compared to other states. I am proposing a minimum of 26 weeks and a maximum of 42 weeks, which fall under the average of other states.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve spoken with countless constituents who have been fighting to stay afloat having lost their jobs and loved ones to the coronavirus. In our state, and definitely in South Florida, $275 a week simply is not enough to feed a family, let alone keep a roof over that family’s heads. The pandemic and resulting economic disaster have put hundreds of thousands of families out of work, which is no fault of their own.

Hardworking Floridians power our economy. Keeping money in people’s pockets so they can buy groceries and pay their bills will boost spending in and help rebuild the state’s economy. It’s crucial that our leaders remember the critical role unemployment insurance played in the last recession and provide a major expansion of unemployment benefits to meet Floridians’ needs.

This is why I have introduced Senate Bill 644 this session, which will help to solve these problems and fix our broken unemployment system. Floridians want legislation that is responsive to their needs; it’s why they passed the $15 minimum wage last year, despite years of opposition from special interests in Tallahassee. It’s obvious that we need to rebuild the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s system for processing claims, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that unemployment-insurance protections here are pathetic compared to the rest of the nation and especially when you consider the cost of living in our state.

As a small-business owner, I pay this insurance so that when disaster strikes and employees lose their jobs as a result, they can feed themselves and their children, and get back on their feet. This is an insurance policy like any other, not a government handout.

I hope my fellow lawmakers recognize this great need, and we can enter the legislative session with a shared commitment to address the major problems the unemployment system laid bare.

Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat, represents Senate District 40, which includes Kendall.

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