- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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March 20

The SunSentinel on unemployment benefits in the state:

As the deadly coronavirus tightens its grip, Florida faces another gut punch: a massive surge in unemployment claims by people who find themselves suddenly out of work and needing help to survive.



Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity says it saw a “drastic increase” this week in requests for unemployment benefits, though it can’t be specific. In an email seen by The New York Times, the Labor Department asked states to keep their numbers “embargoed” because these reports are being closely monitored by the financial markets.

But in Washington State, where Covid-19 first took root in our nation, the Seattle Times reports the number of unemployment claims doubled last week over the week before. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that because of coronavirus, our nation’s unemployment rate could hit 20 percent.

Florida, meanwhile, has more than $4 billion in the trust fund for unemployment benefits. Trust funds are meant for rainy days. One need only walk outside to see the economic downpour.

One reason Florida has $4 billion in savings is because it’s stingy about helping people who lose their jobs. We offer among the nation’s lowest unemployment benefits and make them difficult to obtain. For one thing, you must apply online. If you don’t have a computer or internet service, you’re supposed to go to the library, though many are now closed.

Florida’s unemployment compensation system demands immediate attention to help families cope with what could be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

For starters, benefits should increase from a miserly $275 a week and not be capped at 12 weeks, or $3,300 total.

The state also should junk its obsolete formula for determining someone’s eligibility, which refuses to count their most recent quarter of earnings. Counting that last quarter, as most states do, is fairer to low-wage earners and seasonal workers.

Neither should the state continue to calculate a person’s maximum number of weeks based on the unemployment rate. The scale starts at 12 weeks, the shortest relief period in the country. When the jobless rate exceeds 10.5 percent, benefits incrementally climb to a maximum of 23 weeks. But the scale slides only once a year, usually in the fourth quarter. So despite a months-long forecast of gray clouds, Florida’s 12-week limit is likely to remain in place until October.

Florida’s indifference toward those laid off can be traced to the 2011 legislative session. With the state slowly crawling out of the Great Recession, an anti-government tea party seized control of the state Republican Party, which had just elected a new governor, Rick Scott.

In Scott’s first year, the Legislature reduced the maximum number of weeks for unemployment benefits from 26 to 23. It capped benefits at 12 weeks - the shortest period in the country - when the jobless rate drops below 5 percent. It also held weekly benefits steady at $275, where they’ve been for more than two decades.

By contrast, Pennsylvania’s weekly benefit is $573, Vermont’s is $458 and West Virginia’s is $424.

The Florida AFL-CIO called the 2011 state law “a ghoulish attack on the victims of the recession to benefit the big guys at the top who caused it.”

And remember, the recession hit older workers hardest. Some have never found meaningful re-entry into the job market.

A few small rays of sunshine are emerging. Gov. Ron DeSantis says he will ask FEMA, the federal disaster agency, for emergency unemployment assistance. He also plans to waive the requirement that people receiving unemployment benefits prove they’re steadily applying for new jobs. That makes obvious sense, since so many businesses are closed because of coronavirus.

“With the shock to the system, we want to be there and be helpful,” DeSantis said Thursday.

Also at DeSantis’ direction, DEO is racing to hire more than 100 people to address the overwhelming number of claims coming into the state’s website, and answer calls when the website won’t work. The center will operate seven days a week starting Monday.

As we said Friday, because of how Florida’s economy was built, our safety net is in tatters. Our $8.56 hourly minimum wage is below that of other states. Yet state leaders have refused to accept the federal expansion of Medicaid, which would have helped the working poor get medical care.

Just a week ago, DeSantis celebrated the news that Florida’s unemployment rate had fallen to an “all-time low” of 2.8 percent. An announcement from Enterprise Florida said: “Florida is working to maintain the business-friendly climate our state is known for.”

But business-friendly is not worker-friendly.

Florida is hard on people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. With an increasing number of people beginning to feel desperate, that needs to change.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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March 20

The Orlando Sentinel on how the state should treat average workers, including grocery store clerks and custodians:

We take them for granted, those grocery store clerks who scan and bag our purchases. Same with with the workers who stock the shelves and slice meat behind the deli counter.

Today, we should feel a far deeper appreciation for them, along with the truckers who haul food to grocery stores and the factory workers who package the products and the farmworkers who labor in the fields.

This coronavirus is a daily reminder of how we’ve undervalued these and other American workers, the ones who are showing up every day to ensure shoppers can buy what they need during an upheaval like we’ve never witnessed before.

Thanks to advances in technology, much of the workforce has the luxury of working from home (which is how this editorial was written), isolated from the public and largely safe from the immediate health threat. That’s the responsible thing to do right now for those who can.

Some people don’t have that option. Their jobs don’t allow it, which means they’re facing danger every day.

Like the people staffing grocery stores so we can eat.

Like the day-care employees who remain on the job, looking after children so people who must go to work still can.

Like the custodians who clean buildings so they’re sanitary and safe for others who work inside.

Like the people who work in nursing homes every day, changing soiled bedding, cleaning the patients, feeding those who can’t feed themselves, and providing human contact while loved ones are kept away by the coronavirus.

Like the garbage haulers who continue the backbreaking work of collecting our trash.

None of those jobs pays well. Lots of them don’t provide sick leave or health-care benefits or a pension or a 401(k).

Look at us now - where would we be without them?

We can make it through this crisis just fine without the help of wealthy professional basketball players or movie stars or yacht brokers or social media influencers.

But when we emerge from this - and we will - there needs to be a reckoning about our priorities.

We’ve built a rigged economy, particularly in Florida, where people in this ongoing crisis are among the most essential workers, alongside police and firefighters and doctors and nurses.

How has this state treated them before now?

Our lawmakers have been dead-set against a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, prompting a successful campaign to get a $15 an hour minimum wage on the ballot this fall.

They refused to do anything about businesses failing to offer paid sick leave, and then passed a law that stopped communities like Orange County from doing something on their own.

Over the course of a decade, they skimmed nearly $2 billion from a fund that was supposed to provide money for affordable housing.

In 2011, urged on by then Gov. Rick Scott, they stacked the deck against workers trying to collect unemployment benefits. The Legislature cut the number of weeks unemployed workers were eligible for unemployment - to as low as just 12 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate - and made it easier for employers to deny benefits. All this while keeping one of the worst weekly benefits in the nation - $275 max. A Republican state senator at he time, Nancy Detert, said she wanted to be rid of “slackers and malingerers.”

And year after year the state turned away billions in federal money that would have extended Medicaid health care to hundreds of thousands of low-income Floridians.

It’s a record packed with neglect and disdain for the very people who are helping hold things together now. People who are risking infection of themselves and their families. We understand many do it because they need the income, but that doesn’t make their contribution any less valuable.

We throw words around too carelessly these days, but the collective efforts of people the people who are showing up every day so that society can continue functioning amount to a collective act of heroism.

We need to thank them when we see them, and acknowledge what they’re doing for us.

Then, in our post-coronavirus world, the people we elect to make laws should stop treating these workers like slackers and malingerers and start treating them with the respect every Floridian deserves.

Online: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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March 18

The Miami Herald on young people and the new coronavirus:

We’re calling BS on the cavalier and selfish rationales: “If I die, I die.” “I’m 20 and I’ll be fine.” “Whatever!”

No, if the young ones, who have cavorted in bars, on the beach and at sweat-dripping parties get the coronavirus, they like will infect others, especially someone who truly might die - an elderly relative, even an elderly stranger, someone with chronic health problems exacerbated by the virus.

We’ve consistently called for accountability from the federal government, Florida’s elected officials, especially Gov. DeSantis, and local leaders in powering us through this pandemic.

However, if there were ever a time for South Floridians to take personal responsibility, giving a damn about themselves and the members of the community, this is it. People in every pocket of this community are facing its gravest threat in generations, but too many people have been partying like its 1999.

That puts others at grave risk.

WINTER PARTY RISKY

For instance, the Ultra Music Festival, scheduled for Bayfront Park in downtown Miami this month was canceled, as it should have been. But the Winter Party Festival, a weeklong LGBTQ event that draws thousands of revelers from across the country, went on as usual, ending on May 10. Several attendees have tested positive for the coronavirus since then. Who knows how many they might have infected before their diagnosis.

It’s time to grow up, this once. It’s serious, and risky gatherings have to stop.

Both DeSantis and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez made tough and necessary decisions that will put a dent in some of the irresponsible fun. Tuesday, Gimenez signed an executive order shutting down restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other venues where crowds gather.

This goes further than the governor’s order, also announced on Tuesday, mandating that all nightclubs, bars any business that makes more than half its revenue from alcohol sales can no longer sell drinks for the next 30 days. However, bars that also sell food will be allowed to stay open and only sell food for that period. His order also cuts venues’ capacity by 50 percent and outlines seating distances.

ECONOMIC DAMAGE

It’s a delicate balancing act that acknowledges just how economically devastating the coronavirus pandemic will be - and is already.

South Florida’s most famous party cities, Miami Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, are ending all public partying and socializing of 10 people or more.

Of course, the orders can’t touch what Spring Breakers and others do in the privacy of their hotel rooms and apartments. But they need to smarten up. The new public restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus should not be dismissed.

Many young people’s behavior even caught the attention of Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus coordinator. She says that they are key to “flattening the curve” of the outbreak.

But many in the hospitality industry are stepping up in heartening ways.

The owners of iconic Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach and Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana are trying to help. Joe’s, which has 350 employees, is done for the season. Versailles and La Carreta, with 2,000 employees between them, are keeping a skeleton staff and switching to takeout and delivery.

Kudos to Steve Sawitz of Joe’s and Versailles’ Felipe Valls Jr. for announcing that they will pay employees’ salaries for up to two weeks.

That’s personal responsibility, and it’s a model worth emulating.

Online: https://www.miamiherald.com/

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