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Unemployed recount financial ruin from Florida’s Covid-relief withdrawal in court

The lawsuit alleges that Florida disregarded its own law when it axed $300-a-week federal unemployment supplements last June.

(CN) — Suing over Florida's early cut off of Covid-19-related unemployment payments, a group of out-of-work plaintiffs testified Thursday about their struggle to afford medication and the "humiliating" feeling of going on food stamps amid the outbreak.

The plaintiffs are asking Leon County Circuit Judge Layne Smith to reverse Florida's withdrawal from a federal program that provided extra unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program initially offered $600 per week beyond what out-of-work Americans were receiving in state unemployment benefits.

The amount was later reduced to $300 a week. The program is slated to expire Sept. 6, 2021.

On June 26, Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity cut off the payments early, ending the $300-a-week supplements for more than 100,000 residents. Dane Eagle, secretary of the department, said that "transitioning away from this benefit will help meet the demands of small and large businesses who are ready to hire and expand their workforce.”

The plaintiffs allege that the decision violated a Florida statute that requires the department to "secure for this state all advantages available under the provisions of federal law" on re-employment assistance.  

Among other relief, the lawsuit — which was filed "on behalf of all unemployed Floridians" — demands that the state pay out the federal benefits withheld from late June till now.

On Thursday, plaintiff Gia Cuccaro assured the judge that she has been looking for work since being laid off at the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020.

"I made much more money when I was working rather than with unemployment. Even when the federal benefit was at the $600 mark, I was still making more money then," Cuccaro, a longtime paralegal, said.

Cuccaro said that since the federal benefits were cut off, she has sunk into financial quicksand.

"I'm petrified that I'm gonna be evicted from my apartment. This is an apartment that my mother lived in before she passed away. My daughter — also passed away — lived here with me. I don't want to leave this apartment, and that is the scariest thought that I have right now," she said.

Cuccaro testified that applying for food stamps was "humiliating," as was asking her sister for a loan. 

"The money with the $300 [a week] was just making ends meet. I wasn't getting rich off of it, but I was able to keep a roof over my head. Now my blood pressure's through the roof," she told the court.

Jamesha Bent, a medical billing worker by trade, said she's been on the hunt for a job for more than a year. She said she had been using the federal unemployment supplements to pay for medication, food and utilities.

Bent, 42, testified that she has no family in Florida to help her out financially.  

"I've worked all my life since I was 16. Being out of work and home is not fun for me. I've always been a hard worker all my life. I've always had a job," she testified.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has justified the decision to withhold the benefits by pointing to labor shortages in the restaurant industry and other sectors. At the time the decision was announced last May, there were more than 450,000 job openings, the department says.

Carl Dover, CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said that the state's hospitality industry was "facing a dire labor shortage."

"Strong demand, coupled with this staffing shortage, has left many businesses forced to limit operating days and hours in addition to reducing capacity in both food service and lodging. Ending the supplemental $300 FPUC payment will help the industry regain pre-COVID levels," Dover said in a May press release.

Presiding Judge Layne Smith in Leon County cautioned Thursday that the litigation turns on the wording of Florida unemployment statutes, rather than a sweeping evaluation of whether the Sunshine State was justified in cutting off the federal unemployment payments.  

"Bottom line — this a statutory construction case," Smith said.

"Has the legislature tied the hands to the point where [the state] had to take the federal benefits . . . or not?" the judge asked.

Plaintiffs' counsel concede that on the federal side, states' participation in the unemployment program was optional. But they say Florida's own law is clear that the state is obligated to pursue all federal unemployment benefits available to residents.

On behalf of Florida, attorney Daniel Nordby of Shutts Bowen countered that the plaintiffs are reading Florida law too broadly.  

Nordby added that the lawsuit asks the court to overstep its bounds by ordering "the government to appropriate money."

Florida is among more than 20 states that ended their residents' access to federal coronavirus-related unemployment relief early. Litigation over states' early termination of the benefits has been playing out across the country, with recent appellate court decisions on the matter entered in Indiana and Ohio.

President Joe Biden signaled last week that he did not plan to push for an extension of the September 6 nationwide expiration of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

On Aug. 19, Janet Yellen, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury,  sent a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, indicating that states could still use their allocations from the American Rescue Plan to provide supplemental unemployment assistance.

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