Advocates for Jobless Floridians Ask Governor Crist for Executive Order

Tallahassee, FL – Thousands of jobless Floridians are not eligible for unemployment compensation because of the way the state calculates benefits. Critics say simple changes to the system will bring in millions of dollars from the federal government and help more families. Gina Jordan tells us community organizations held a rally at the Capitol asking the Governor to do something about it.

The coalition wants to see an expansion of the unemployment system that would result in more than $440-million in federal stimulus funding for Florida. Sheena Rolle of Organize Now in Orlando led the rally on the steps of the old Capitol.

"People who have worked in the state of Florida, people who have added value to our economy, workers that we desperately need to receive some kind of benefit to both add to their families and our economy, 64-thousand of those families will remain without any kinds of assistance because our Florida system for unemployment compensation is antiquated."

The group says Governor Crist can immediately fix that with an executive order. Mike Williams is president of the Florida AFL-CIO. As a construction worker by trade, he's received compensation before and he's been denied benefits.

"I know what it means to have that lifeline with unemployment benefits to get you by until you do find a job, where you can have some dignity in your home and your workplace down the road."

Williams is critical of the Legislature for not passing unemployment reform during the last regular session. Florida has about a year left to make changes in order to qualify for the government's remaining incentive funds. The state would have to adopt the alternative base period, which allows workers to count their recent earnings if needed to qualify for benefits. For now, only earnings from the first four of the last five quarters are counted, which could be a problem for seasonal workers. Badili Jones is with Florida New Majority in Miami.

"Unemployment insurance benefits are not handouts. Unemployment insurance benefits are for those people who are looking for work. Unemployment benefits are part of what is called a social safety net."

Modernizing the system means the state must give special consideration to groups that tend to fall through the holes in the safety net, like part-timers and the long time unemployed who need training to improve their skills. Lori Danley is with the Miami Workers Center. She'll never forget her days on the government dole.

"I sent out over three-hundred resumes, I have a college education, never even got a call for like an interview until after eight months; very scary, very scary that unemployment could even run out because I have no alternative. I have no family, no one that's going to step in and save me, per se."

Danley says it wasn't a lot of money, but those unemployment checks kept her family from having to live in the car after she was laid off. There were no splurges for this single mom and her two kids.

"I think at first, they didn't really get it, and then eventually once we were living off ramen noodles or peanut butter and jelly, I mean, you do what you have to do. You know, it taught them that you know, you have to do what you have to do to survive, and it made us stronger."

Danley feels fortunate to have qualified for assistance. She knows people who have been jobless for over two years.

"I have friends that have been denied unemployment. They're going through extreme depression, losing their homes. I mean, it's desperate, desperate, desperate times, and if something like this isn't there to help, what's going to happen?"

After the rally, the group marched to the Governor's Office, where Governor Crist came out to the greet them.

"Obviously, my heart bleeds for you, and you know, this is a time of very difficult unemployment throughout Florida, and anything that we can do, we will do."

Crist says his staff is checking with the Department of Labor to see whether an executive order is possible.