Florida ranks last in the nation for the rate of unemployed people receiving state benefits and in January its going to become even stingier.
The eligible weeks of unemployment insurance benefits will shrink to 19 from 23. September's unemployment rate of 8.7 percent released Friday sealed the deal. And worker advocates say the state has put other changes to the system in place that stymie eligible unemployed people from getting benefits.
This year, the state curbed eligible weeks to 23 from 26, but extended benefits from the federal government mean that those currently unemployed can get benefits up to 60 weeks. The federal extensions expire at the end of the year. So in 2013, someone who gets laid off faces the possibility of less than five months of unemployment benefits being available, instead of more than a year.
Last year, more than 30 percent of unemployed workers in the United States were out of work for more than a year, according to the Labor Department.
"You got kids, pay rent, wash clothes. ... It's really tough," said Jolette Jean-Louis of West Palm Beach, who has been unemployed for several months and was receiving $170 a week. "But when you have it, something is better than nothing."
Benefits' Name, Timeline Change
About 132,200 people were on state benefits in the second quarter of 2012, just 17 percent of the unemployed statewide, according to the Labor Department, a drop of 40,427 since the same quarter last year. Gov. Rick Scott has touted this as a positive sign in the labor market, but worker advocates said the system is weeding out people who qualify for and deserve the benefits while the employment situation has improved minimally.
James Miller, spokesman for the state Department of Economic Opportunity, pointed out that the unemployment rate has continued to decline under Scott.
"More and more Floridians are finding jobs, Florida has experienced positive annual job growth for 26 straight months, the number of job postings is up significantly over the year, the consumer confidence index is at a post-recession high, and Florida is expected to create more than 900,000 new jobs by 2018," he said in an email response. "All positive indicators that Florida's economy is on the right track."
However, nearly 58 percent of the unemployed exhaust their state unemployment insurance benefits without getting a job.
"They live on the absolute edge of survival," said Kate Watson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. "The idea of them cutting it even further in this economic landscape ... What do you say to people?"
Penalizing the unemployed "seems really extreme," said Emily Eisenhauer of Florida International University's Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy. Especially when groups such as older workers, black workers and Latino workers have much higher rates than the state average.
"If our benefits are doing what they are designed to do, which is providing a bridge and safety net for the unemployed as well as stimulus of the economy ... then they should correspond to the reality of our economy," Eisenhauer said.
Advocates of the system point out that unemployed people immediately spend their benefits on rent, food, gas and other necessary items, stimulating the economy. If those people do not have benefits, they will spend less and have to rely on other forms of government assistance.
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