With Florida seeing a glimmer of hope from both a decline in COVID-19 infections and rising availability of vaccines, it’s tempting to want to get back to business as usual. For the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), however, “business as usual” means the imposition of work requirements on participants who are relying on those programs to do things like put food on the table and pay rent.
Because of the pandemic, work requirements have been on hold for TANF and SNAP participants since March 2020.
Reimposition of work requirements would mean that many parents participating in TANF would have to work or take part in a work program anywhere from 20 to 55 hours each week, depending on their household composition. Participants in SNAP who are subject to the mandate would have to clock 80 hours each month. For Floridians who attempt to comply, work requirements put them and their family members at risk of contracting COVID-19.
So, is it still too early to reinstate work requirements? The answer is a resounding yes.
Pandemic or not, the ethics and utility of work requirements for safety net participants is questionable for many reasons, including the fact that many participants already work or have significant work histories; struggle to find stable, full-time employment in today’s job market; and experience hardship if they are thrown off programs as a work sanction.
But work requirements pose even more problems in the middle of the pandemic.
As encouraging as the news is about the virus, COVID-19 is still worse than it was when Florida first suspended TANF and SNAP work requirements. On February 23, 2021, Florida reported over 7,000 new infections — roughly 12 times the number of infections in one day than the total number for the entire month in which work requirements were first waived. In fact, the number of people infected with COVID-19 in Florida has grown from 563 to over 1,885,661, more than the populations of the cities of Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa combined.
While the labor market may be showing improvements, finding a job is harder now than it was when work requirements were first suspended. The unemployment rate today, 6.1 percent, is higher than it was in March 2020 (4.4 percent). Moreover, roughly 112,000 Floridians filed claims for Unemployment Insurance during the week ending January 30, 2021, compared to the 70,000 claims that were filed the week that work requirements were first suspended.
Plus, experts warn that a new surge is likely on the horizon due to new variants of the virus.
On top of that, few SNAP and TANF participants who are subject to work requirements have been vaccinated for COVID-19.  This is because vaccine guidelines in Florida have so far limited shots to people aged 65 and older, those in very poor health, health care personnel who have direct patient contact, and residents and staff in long-term care facilities. Because not many TANF and SNAP participants subject to mandatory work requirements fit that bill, it is likely that few of them have been vaccinated.
It does not make sense to reinstate work requirements right now. The job market is still tough, and not only does COVID-19 continue to be an imminent threat, but most participants who would be subject to mandatory work requirements have not yet been vaccinated. Normalcy is everyone’s goal. Still, taking precautions — like continuing to suspend work requirements — only makes sense until, at a minimum, the state emerges from the public health emergency and affected participants and their communities have had the chance to be vaccinated.
 For SNAP, persons are exempt from work requirements if, among other reasons, they are over 49 or in poor health. Similarly, in TANF, persons with medical issues have good cause for not meeting the work requirement. And there are very few TANF recipients are aged 65 or older: less than 500 adults state-wide receiving TANF are over the age of 49.