Florida’s unemployment rate in March was flat, at 4.7 percent, and Flagler County’s was nearly so, at 5.3 percent, a slight increase from February’s revised rate of 4.9 percent. The increase is statistically insignificant given the county’s rate over the past six months: but for a dip during the holiday season, it’s hovered between 5.3 and 5.8 percent.
The March rate in Flagler ticked up not because that many more people are unemployed–there was an increase of just 220 people without work, for a total of 2,538–but because the workforce grew by nearly 500 as more people join the workforce or the county continues to attract working-age residents. The workforce totaled 47,741 in March, but remains 1,400 people short of where it was a year ago. Almost 500 people fewer are without jobs today than in March 2020, when the pandemic’s effects was beginning to ramp up.
Some local officials, members of the business community and, today, Gov. Ron DeSantis, are without evidence other than anecdotal, attributing a dearth of job-takers to the claim that workers are staying home to cash in on unemployment benefits. While some workers have in all periods taken advantage of unemployment benefits, the claim is largely false, especially in Florida, and has frequently been debunked, but continues to gain currency from baseless repetition or ideological malice.
Able workers cannot choose to be unemployed and receive benefits. It’s not a matter of choice, but of eligibility. As a Brookings Institution paper on the matter concludes, the assertion that workers are making more money on unemployment than at work “is patently false.”
“Under the CARES Act as in regular UI,” Brookings reported, referring to unemployment insurance rules that have been extended to the current stimulus package,” an employer can ask an employee that they previously laid off (or reduced hours for) to return to work. If the employee refuses to return, they will lose their eligibility to collect UI benefits unless they meet” federal or state criteria. Failing that, they can be prosecuted for fraud.
Florida unemployment benefits are among the stingiest in the nation, topping off at $275 a week, and lasting a maximum of 12 weeks, though the eligibility window was extended at the end of last year by 11 weeks. That window closes on March 14. To be eligible, the state also sets up onerous conditions, including contacting at least five prospective employers a week, reporting to a local career center for reemployment services and participating in “reemployment” services, along with maintaining reporting requirements to the Department of Employment Opportunity. The requirements play a role in keeping workers on the sidelines, artificially depressing the official unemployment rate.
The federal government’s supplemental $600-a-week unemployment checks last year were intended to offset broad-based job losses across the country. That benefit may have had a more substantial hand in keeping workers home, though at the time health officials didn’t mind: it was a way to limit the spread of the virus. But it ran out in July. Another round of supplemental, federal benefits, at $300 a week, rolled out late last year and was extended by the latest stimulus package to last until September. Working part-time or temporarily does not necessarily end the benefits in Florida, but reduces them.
Even assuming that unemployment checks somehow would encourage workers to stay home, the claim is discredited on its face, especially in Florida, given the stinginess of the benefits. The maximum benefit a worker can get currently is $575 (before taxes). The unemployment rate is 4.7 percent. Vermont has a much more generous unemployment insurance benefit of up to 39 weeks, and a maximum benefit of $531 a week, or $831 a week when combined with federal benefits–an annualized wage of $43,200 that should theoretically encourage Vermont workers to stay home in droves. Yet Vermont’s unemployment rate, at 2.9 percent, is tied for lowest in the nation.
The Florida Legislature is considering raising the state’s weekly maximum benefit by $100, to $375. Gov. Ron DeSantis today spoke in opposition to the proposal, again repeating falsehoods about higher benefits keeping workers home. “Increase benefits? Look, no, I mean, I think we’re getting people back to work,” he told a reporter in Lakeland, according to the News Service of Florida. “You see or hear the stories, there’s businesses (that) need more. You know, our goal is to get people back to work. I think there’s a lot of demand right now.”
Florida’s latest unemployment figures represent 475,000 people out of work from a workforce of 10.17 million. The number of people out of work grew by 1,000 from February, while the workforce size increased by 46,000, the News Service reports. The workforce size is still down 460,000 from where it stood in March 2020, according to the department’s figures.