Millions of employees in Florida turn to their employers for benefits and other assistance programs. Employers are under both federal and state obligations to offer some benefits, such as workers’ compensation insurance, while some employers electively offer others, such as paid time off.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruptions to the global economy, and Florida is no different. Hundreds of thousands have lost employment or had hours reduced as a result of the novel coronavirus, and more are likely facing reduced hours, furloughs, or layoffs.
With all of that in mind, it’s important that you understand what employee benefits are mandated and available in the Sunshine State. Here, we’ll review the state’s requirements for existing assistance programs and how the novel coronavirus has impacted them.
Unemployment insurance benefits in Florida
Workers who lose their job through no fault of their own and meet certain criteria can file for unemployment benefits, or reemployment assistance as it’s called by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Like other states, Florida’s reemployment assistance exists to provide temporary relief to eligible residents that are currently out of work or left with significantly reduced work hours.
These are the conditions to qualify for unemployment insurance in Florida:
- Work was not lost due to misconduct or consistently poor performance
- If the applicant quit, it must have been for good cause
- Earned enough in wages over the last 12 months
- Be totally or partially unemployed
- Be physically and mentally able to work
- Be available for work
- Be actively seeking work
Since Florida renamed its unemployment benefit to reemployment assistance in 2012, state officials have emphasized its existence as a stop gap measure before an affected resident finds another job. With that in mind, Floridians receive checks for a maximum period of 12 weeks at no more than $275 per week.
Here’s how to file a reemployment assistance claim:
- Gather your necessary paperwork: valid ID, social security number, and your last 18 months of employment history, including wage information and any tax forms you may have received.
- Visit the Reemployment Assistance Application Portal and create an account.
- Register for the benefit online by providing identifying information like your name, date of birth, and social security number.
- File a claim by providing all relevant information asked.
If approved, you must request additional funds every two weeks by logging in to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity website. Funds will be provided either through direct deposit, which takes approximately one to two business days to clear, or through a Way2Go Debit Card, which is mailed to you after the first payment is processed. It generally takes a week to 10 days to receive the card in the mail.
The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act of 1988 requires employers with 100 or more employees to give 60 days’ warning before a location is slated to close or mass layoffs are expected to take place.
How has COVID-19 changed Florida unemployment benefits?
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waived the requirement to wait a week before benefits make their way to applicants, backdating the measure to March 29 and running until May 8.
The governor also opted to waive certain work registration requirements to make it easier for those affected by COVID-19 to obtain assistance. According to the state, applicants who file for benefits between March 15 and May 2 will not have to complete the work registration step online. However, work search requirements for any period before March 15 will still be required.
The best part? Individuals receiving reemployment assistance don’t have to login to the Florida Connect page every two weeks to claim their assistance.
In addition to the steps taken by DeSantis, reemployment assistance recipients will receive an additional $600 in weekly federal unemployment benefits from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Those funds, added to the regular assistance funds from the state, are available to anyone who files between March 29 to July 31, 2020.
Other federal assistance comes in the form of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. The former will provide up to $275 per week in benefits to people who normally are not eligible for reemployment assistance, while the latter adds another 13 weeks of benefits to the end of the state’s 12 weeks.
For more information, you can review the Florida DEO’s COVID-19 reemployment assistance resource guide.
Paid time off in Florida
Florida does not require employers to provide paid or unpaid vacation days. The state also does not impose any sick leave requirements on employers. In the case of family or sick leave, the state follows the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with a serious health condition, care for a sick relative, or tend to a newborn child.
In the event that an employer offers paid vacation time, that benefit is considered earned wages according to state law. The state also allows employers to adopt a “use it or lose it” stance for vacation payouts if a person leaves a job with vacation time accrued. It also allows employers to place a cap on how many hours of vacation time can roll over from one year to the next.
Public employees in Florida enjoy nine paid holidays each year. Those holidays include:
- New Year’s Day
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- Memorial Day
- Independence Day
- Labor Day
- Veterans Day
- Thanksgiving Day
- The day after Thanksgiving
Additionally, public employees can be given paid time off based on their length of service, such as sick leave, administrative leave, compensatory leave, disability leave, and educational leave.
How does the novel coronavirus affect paid time off in Florida?
The state may not require that employers provide paid sick leave to their employees, but the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) does. According to the legislation, businesses with fewer than 500 employees are required to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for qualifying workers. How long an individual is able to stay out on COVID-19-related sick leave depends on their need. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees could potentially be exempt from the requirement.
Health care benefits in Florida
Florida does not require employers to provide health care benefits to their employees. If an employer does provide health benefits, the state’s insurance laws require plans to cover certain mandated benefits as defined by the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Employees at small companies must also have the option to continue group coverage or convert to an individual policy, in certain circumstances, if the employee leaves the group. Through the ACA, employers with 50 or more full-time employees must provide health insurance.
The minimum essential benefits required through the ACA include:
- Outpatient care
- Emergency room visits
- Inpatient care
- Pre- and post-natal care
- Mental health and drug abuse counseling
- Various forms of physical and occupational therapy
- Lab testing
- Preventative services
- Pediatric services
While the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act removed the individual mandate originally found in the ACA, it did not remove the “shared responsibility” that employers have to provide medical insurance to workers. Executive Order 13813 also includes “association plan” rules that allow small businesses to group together to buy coverage as a single entity.
Have Florida health care benefits changed due to COVID-19?
For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials said the Florida Department of Financial Services (DFS) and the Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR) are discussing assistance options with multiple insurers. In most cases, the insurers have agreed to “voluntarily [waive] cost-sharing for consumers in an effort to remove barriers to testing for COVID-19.” Anyone in need of testing or treatment should call their insurer to find out next steps to receive care.
Along with interfacing with insurers, DeSantis signed an executive order allowing pharmacies to dispense up to a 30-day prescription refill of maintenance medication to any Florida residents who need them.
The OIR is also providing leniency guidelines on insurance premium payments, requiring that all regulated insurers be flexible with payments since most workers are sheltering in place and likely facing difficult financial situations.
Child care assistance in Florida
Low income families in need of child care assistance can apply for help on the state’s Office of Early Learning website. The state operates the School Readiness Program to assist low-income families for early childhood education and care.
Assistance is based on an individual’s need and ranges from “extended day to extended year and school age care.” The program takes multiple points into consideration, including a child’s overall development, if parents serve as the child’s teacher, and how the eligible child is being prepared to enroll in public school. Eligibility is considered at the county level, so potential applicants are asked to contact their early learning coalition.
Have Florida child care benefits changed due to COVID-19?
First responders and health care workers can apply for child care for free or at a reduced rate through Florida’s Office of Early Learning. The office is also providing resources for those teaching children at home through the course of the pandemic. Additional benefits are currently in development.
Workers’ compensation in Florida
Florida employers with four or more employees, construction businesses with 1 or more employees, or agricultural businesses with 6 or more employees are required by law to purchase workers’ compensation coverage. The OIR oversees workers’ compensation matters throughout the state, regulating rates, forms, and the status of more than 250 potential insurers. The Division of Workers’ Compensation, as part of the Department of Financial Services, works to ensure employees who meet eligibility requirements get their benefits.
Special workers’ compensation provisions in Florida due to COVID-19
Following the signing of two executive orders from Governor DeSantis, workers’ compensation is being provided to first responders directly working to combat the coronavirus. Health care workers, first responders, and other workers at risk of work-related exposure are eligible under Florida law.
Disability insurance in Florida
The state does not require that employers provide disability insurance. If an employer does, however, the state may impose specific provisions in a group policy. The state suggests that employees looking for disability insurance utilize existing federal assistance programs, such as Social Security Disability Insurance.
Changes to disability in Florida due to COVID-19
Federal disability insurance programs, which are available to Florida residents, have made changes due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. Recipients of the benefit will continue to receive payments throughout the crisis. The Economic Impact Payment will not count toward SSDI income requirements. Payments that regularly come through the United States Postal Service will continue to do so.
Retirement benefits in Florida
Depending on when they enrolled in the Florida Retirement System (FRS), public employees are afforded a retirement plan from the state. Private employees, however, need to be covered by their employer.
Business owners who provide retirement benefits on their own must follow the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974, which mandates that employees who work at least 1,000 hours in a year be given the option to join a pension or retirement plan.
How does COVID-19 impact retirement benefits in Florida?
Following the signing of Executive Order 20-88 by Governor DeSantis, members of state-administered retirement plans who’ve been retired since October 1, 2019, or who could retire before or on August 1, 2020, can utilize an FRS participating agency for emergency work related to COVID-19. Going back to work under those conditions won’t cut into or end that employee’s retirement benefits.