Lawsuit challenges cut to unemployment

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Posted July 26, 2021 | By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida

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TALLAHASSEE – Broward County residents struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic have filed a lawsuit challenging a decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to cut off federal unemployment money for Floridians.

The lawsuit, filed Sunday in Broward County circuit court, contends that the DeSantis administration violated state law last month when it stopped providing $300 a week in federal assistance to jobless people. The money, approved by Congress as part of COVID-19 relief efforts, came on top of state unemployment benefits.

The DeSantis administration halted the federal assistance June 26, pointing to efforts to spur people to return to the workforce. But the lawsuit, which includes 10 named plaintiffs, said the payments should have continued until Sept. 6, as authorized by Congress under a program known as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC, program.

“Each of the plaintiffs have suffered economic hardships because of COVID, have had difficulty finding work and now with the discontinuation of the FPUC face even more pressing financial hardships,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, which names as defendants DeSantis and Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle, seeks an injunction to force the state to reinstate the federal money. Also, it seeks retroactive payments to June 26.

Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week in state benefits to unemployed people, an amount that the lawsuit said is one of the lowest amounts in the nation. It said plaintiffs in the case are facing issues such as being unable to pay rent and other bills.

The lawsuit points to a state law that deals with the interplay between the state and federal government on unemployment issues. The lawsuit cites part of the law that directs the Department of Economic Opportunity to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Labor and to take actions “through the adoption of appropriate rules, administrative methods and standards necessary to secure for the state all advantages available under the provisions of federal law relating to reemployment assistance.”

“By withdrawing Florida from participation in the FPUC programs, the defendants are depriving the plaintiffs and all residents of the state of Florida weekly FPUC benefits they could receive until the FPUC benefits expire if they remain eligible for those benefits,” the lawsuit said.

Before the federal money was cut off, Eagle has said people were taking advantage of the combined state and federal assistance, which was competitive with weekly pay at many restaurants and tourism businesses.

“You’ve seen restaurants that have had to close earlier or open later or close certain days of the week,” Eagle said. “All over the Panhandle I’ve seen signs that say, ‘Welcome to the new pandemic.’ The 2021 pandemic is unemployment, not being able to hire. So, we’ve got to put an end to that.”

DeSantis’ office and the Department of Economic Opportunity did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.

The plaintiffs are represented by Weston attorney Scott Behren and Tallahassee attorneys Gautier Kitchen and Marie Mattox. Kitchen and Mattox were the lead attorneys in an unsuccessful lawsuit last year against the Department of Economic Opportunity and Deloitte Consulting about problems with the unemployment system during the pandemic.

News Service staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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