October 29, 2020

Now is Not the Time to Reimpose Work Mandates on Safety Net Program Participants

Update: DCF has announced that it will continue the suspension of work requirements in the TANF and SNAP programs at least through November 2020. Florida Policy Institute thanks Governor DeSantis and the Department of Children and Families for this decision, which will help families recover faster and protect them from unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus.  We also hope that the well-being of participants will remain a top priority for the state in coming months and that the suspension will remain in place until the economy recovers and COVID-19 subsides.

In March 2020, Governor Ron DeSantis suspended work requirements in Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) programs. This was to ensure that struggling families have the support and resources they need during the pandemic until Florida flattens the COVID-19 curve and can safely reopen.

TANF provides cash assistance on a temporary basis to families with children; SNAP provides households assistance to purchase food. Both programs require that participants have low income in order to qualify and are jointly administered by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

But SNAP and TANF work requirements are scheduled to be reinstated by DCF effective November 1, 2020. The fact that this is even being considered is concerning.  

Reimposition of  work requirements means that parents  participating in TANF will be forced to work or take part in a work program anywhere from 20 to 55 hours a week, depending on their household composition. For SNAP, participants will have to  work or participate in a work activity for at least 80 hours each month. And the penalty for noncompliance with TANF and SNAP work mandates is steep. If the head of household fails to comply without “good cause,” the family’s entire assistance is terminated as a work sanction.

Work Requirements are Almost Impossible to Adhere to During the Pandemic and Recovery

For people who are subject to work requirements, this mandate, in many cases, requires interaction with a variety of strangers by completing job applications, being interviewed in person by prospective employers, attending job training, or doing volunteer work.  Even though TANF and SNAP participants may wear masks and adhere to social distancing, complying with work requirements makes them vulnerable to the behavior of potential employers and others who refuse to do likewise.

And even if every TANF and SNAP participant had the option of meeting their work requirements online, complying with work requirements through online activities is not possible for many households. One-third of families with very low income in Florida do not have internet access and will be unable to work or participate in this manner. For these Floridians, work requirements mean putting themselves and family members at risk of contracting COVID-19 by attempting to comply or losing their assistance for noncompliance.

The lack of jobs right now is another reason why reimposing work requirements makes no sense.  With the spread of COVID-19 and rising unemployment, it is unlikely that enough jobs exist for the TANF and SNAP participants who will be up against a work requirement, at least until the economy recovers.

Work Requirements Should be Suspended for All Safety Net Programs

Governor DeSantis waived work requirements for Florida’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) participants through December 5, 2020. There is no good reason not to do the same for TANF and SNAP participants.

Coronavirus has only gotten worse since the date that Florida first suspended TANF and SNAP work requirements back in March. The number of people infected with COVID-19 in Florida has grown from 563 to over 748,437, more than the populations of the cities of Tampa and Orlando combined. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased by over 47,000. Unemployment is on the rise again, as are claims for Reemployment Assistance (RA), which is Florida’s UI program.

Additionally, because of Florida’s stingy RA payment rates, in many cases, families receiving RA are the very same households who also qualify for TANF or SNAP. With Florida’s RA program now providing families with no more than $275 a week — and many get much less — even a two-person family must make do on assistance that puts their income below the federal poverty level. A four-person family forced to rely on RA has the Herculean task of paying bills for basic necessities on a maximum of roughly $14,190 a year, even assuming that they are able to establish their eligibility for the program at all.

With COVID-19 pummeling Florida’s economy, Floridians are turning to TANF and SNAP in record numbers to make ends meet. The number of Floridians participating in TANF has increased by over 46 percent, and the number of households on SNAP has increased by 40 percent. This is exactly what those programs are there for: to ensure that Floridians in crisis are able to provide food for their families and keep a roof over their heads.

Safeguards are Needed Prior to Reimposition of Work Requirements

Nothing about reimposing work mandates on safety net participants in Florida makes sense, at least until the virus subsides and the economy recovers.

And, when the state does reinstate work requirements,  DCF and DEO must have clear and uniform protocols in place for excusing participants who are at risk of spreading the virus to vulnerable family members, or those who have underlying medical conditions or compromised immune systems that make them more likely to get seriously ill from the virus. These protocols must also excuse participants who live in areas of high unemployment or those who have difficulty complying due to any other COVID-19 related reason — this could include a parent whose child is in distance learning or someone facing pandemic-related restrictions on public transportation that make it hard to travel to work or training sites. Just as important is that these protocols be publicly announced and circulated, and that DCF and DEO affirmatively screen for exceptions. The procedures should also make it easy for households to establish an exception, and the state must have guidelines to quickly evaluate and make timely decisions on requests for exceptions so that no one has to put themselves, their families, or their communities at risk.

Floridians are still struggling. These include families who have lost everything (or nearly everything) in the pandemic — their paychecks, housing, and health.  With unemployment rates on the rise and infection rates climbing, many see no end in sight for an economic situation that they never imagined.

Florida policymakers should do all that they can to respond to the plight of these families and help them recover, not make it harder for them to stay on their feet by imposing unnecessary work requirements at the worst possible time.

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