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Capital Report

House sets up final vote on unemployment comp changes

By Gina Jordan

Tallahassee, FL – The House is ready to hold final debate on a measure that makes changes to unemployment compensation in Florida. Gina Jordan reports Republican lawmakers say it will help businesses create jobs, but critics want a complete overhaul of what they say is an antiquated system.

These protestors are unhappy about the proposed changes. One of their key concerns is a provision that would reduce the number of benefit weeks available from 26 to 20. The jobless rate is currently at 12%. When it falls to 5%, the benefit weeks would be capped at 12. Badili Jones is with Florida New Majority, an advocacy group based in Miami.

"It would accelerate people into poverty if there are no jobs in the other end of that pipeline. So the idea or the logic that says cutting unemployment will consequently create jobs or allow employers to create jobs just doesn't cut it in terms of logic right now."

As demonstrators held signs and chanted outside the Capitol, the House took up the unemployment compensation bill. If it becomes law, applicants for benefits will have to undergo an initial skills review. Those who are already in the system won't be impacted, and the maximum weekly payout stays the same at $275. Republican Doug Holder of Sarasota sponsors the bill that he says addresses imbalances in the system.

"It changes the legal standard required by an employer to show employee misconduct and expands the definition of misconduct to include actions that can jeopardize a business' ability to remain open, chronic employee behavior, and violation of employer rules with certain rights granted to an employee."

Approximately 400-thousand of the 1.1 million Floridians out of work are now receiving compensation. The measure, heavily favored along party lines in the Republican dominated Legislature, seeks to reduce unemployment taxes paid by businesses, in turn enabling them to hold onto positions or create new ones. Holder says reducing the number of weeks benefits are provided will also help the job climate.

"Since 2009, the unemployment compensation trust fund has been broke. It has zero money. We're borrowing money from the federal government at this point of about two- billion dollars. Currently we're having to pay just in interest in this year alone about 61.5 million dollars, and that's the reason that we have to take action and reform the system."

By reducing the unemployment compensation tax, Holder says the average savings for businesses would be about 18-dollars per employee. What critics of the bill really want is an updated system that lets claimants count their most recent earnings when benefits are calculated. For now, earnings from the last quarter aren't factored in. Representative Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat, tried to change that.

"My amendment would put in an alternative base period for qualifying for unemployment benefits. It would allow individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own to count the last four quarters of employment to be determined with regard to their eligibility."

But Holder said Thompson's amendment would do the exact opposite of what he and the other sponsors are trying to accomplish.

"The intent of the bill is to reduce taxes on businesses to help our businesses recover and increase employment and put our citizens back to work. This amendment adds people that are currently not qualified to receive unemployment compensation, increasing the cost to businesses and to the unemployment compensation trust fund, which I might add has no money in it."

Several Democrats offered amendments to the bill and all were defeated. The full House will debate the proposal on Thursday and take a vote. A similar measure has been filed in the Senate.