The Florida Chamber of Commerce logo (Pic via dotflorida.org)

In its agenda for the 2012 session, The Florida Chamber of Commerce has said that it will “will fight to stabilize and ultimately lower the cost of the unemployment compensation tax increases for Florida employers.”

Last session, the Chamber successfully lobbied for changes to the state’s unemployment benefit program. The result of their efforts: fewer benefit payments to the unemployed and a reduction of entrants into the program. In Florida, the maximum number of weeks someone can receive state unemployment benefits changed from 26 weeks to 23 — and if the state’s unemployment rate continues to fall, that could be shortened to as little as 12 weeks.

Businesses in Florida, however, were allowed to dodge an increase in taxes levied to fill the state’s unemployment trust. The trust has been frequently teetering on insolvency because of the state’s persistent unemployment.

New reports show that Florida currently has the fifth lowest unemployment benefits in the country, as well as the eight lowest unemployment tax. Florida was one of only three states that made significant cuts to unemployment benefits and eligibility over the past two years.

Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO says that businesses in Florida have been allowed to not contribute what is “legally their fair share.” According to him, while some argue last year’s legislation relieved businesses of a burden, it actually hurt small businesses, in particular.

“What ends up happening is that small businesses actually lose out on money at the cash register,” Templin says. “It’s actually a job-killer.” He says when unemployed people do not receive benefits or receive less benefits, they lose “purchasing power” that goes back into the state’s economy. Templin calls Florida’s unemployment program an “unmitigated disaster.”

In the Chamber’s 2012 agenda (.pdf), the group says that the state “must”:

  • Modify the formula in current law that determines the unemployment compensation trust fund balance recoupment rate and reduces the taxable wage base.
  • Encourage examination by the Department of Revenue and legislative committees of the array calculation and its potential impact on Florida’s unemployment compensation tax rate for businesses.

While the group has not asked for specific legislation, Templin says the fact that the influential Chamber has unemployment benefits on its agenda again is a “concern.”

Alan Stonecipher of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy says the state has been “declaring open season on the unemployed.” He says the plan to remove responsibility from businesses has been “unfair, as well as unwise.”

“Florida has had the deepest and most sweeping cuts to unemployment than anywhere in the country,” Stonecipher says. “Florida has been open for business — and businesses have been walking right through the door.”

Florida’s unemployment problem has not seen seen any real improvement. It was reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday that the state suffered 69 mass layoff actions during the month of September, which was the fourth highest number in the nation. The state’s employment growth has also mostly been in low-wage industries.

“The state is no longer digging into the bone of unemployment benefits,” Templin says. “They are digging into the marrow.”

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