State fails to explain why some unemployed not getting $600 weekly federal supplement
As Florida begins to reopen and settle into a “new normal” amid the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Floridians may find they don’t have a job waiting for them. Weeks — if not months — of limited or no income has left many financially desolate.
Now, beyond the fact that many people have not received a penny in promised unemployment benefits, new questions are being raised about the claims state officials say have been paid. Those left jobless, elected officials and advocacy groups are asking why the state is categorizing certain claims as paid when the recipients of that assistance have not gotten both state and federal checks.
Unemployment claims resulting from coronavirus should include two parts — state funds and federal funds. Florida pays a maximum of $275 per week. Because of the pandemic, the federal government promised to supplement state benefits with an additional $600 per week for up to 12 weeks. Those federal funds were a result of the CARES Act stimulus package, which was signed into law March 27 and guaranteed to anyone who qualified for unemployment.
In most states, the program seems to be working, and people are receiving both state and federal funds. But in Florida, that is not always the case.
“It’s been harder to get benefits in every state over the past decade, but Florida is uniquely weird,” said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the advocacy organization National Employment Law Project. “Not only was there a law passed in 2011 to deliberately discourage benefits, but ... when Florida modernized its computer system, it did so in a way to discourage benefit delivery.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has blamed that system, restructured under former Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. senator, for the lion’s share of the problems. And while that may be true, critics, including Florida Democratic lawmakers, say DeSantis has neglected to take the necessary steps to fix it.
“I do get a real sense from the DeSantis administration that they are frustrated and want to get benefits out the door,” Evermore said. “It’s super technocratic, but there are factors inside the computers, logarithms, that can be switched off, slowdowns that can be reversed.”
Evermore said states like Michigan and Massachusetts, for example, took swift action to fix their systems in the early days of the pandemic. In doing so, they thwarted the massive problems Florida is experiencing.
“They have an unemployment insurance director and governor who are committed to getting benefits out the door, so they went into the computer system and fixed it,” she said of the other states. “So far, what I’ve seen, is that Florida is not willing to do those things.”
In fact, Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has rebuffed requests to call the Legislature into special session to fix the unemployment benefits system.
Where is my $600?
National attention has spotlighted the problems with Florida’s poorly constructed unemployment system, which is now buckling under the strain of almost 2 million claims.
The state was second in the nation for new unemployment claims for the week ending May 16, adding 225,404 more jobless to the growing number of people entangled in a web of overdue bills, empty cupboards and mounting stress.
“I am livid,” said Steven Mellion, a former executive director of an assisted living facility in Wellington who has been trying in vain to get his hands on the federal portion of his unemployment benefits for months. “I’ve called over 200 times and never spoken to anyone. I’ve been hung up on and left my number, but never received a call back.”
And despite DeSantis’ May 4 statement that 99.9% of unemployment claims have been paid, records from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity show something quite different.
DEO records show that at the time of DeSantis’ statement, only 44.1% of claims had been paid. Three weeks later, a May 27 DEO report showed that number had grown to about half of all claims — still far shy of the 99.9% DeSantis claimed weeks before.
No answers from the state
Evermore is not the only one who cannot explain why Florida cannot seem to pay out unemployment claims correctly. No one at the state level seems to be able to explain why either. DeSantis did not return a call to speak for this article.
Congressional Democrats, who have been calling on the governor to repair the flawed system and permit the flow of federal dollars they appropriated starting with the Cares Act, say they don’t understand either.
“The only explanation I can come up with is this is further evidence of a system that is broken,” said U.S. Rep Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton who added he has been frustrated in his effort to get answers from DeSantis to these same questions. “I get 75-100 calls per day from people who haven't been able to maneuver this broken system.”
DeSantis has said he has taken steps to alleviate some issues, spending millions on servers and adding hundreds of employees to the call centers. But it hasn’t been enough, Deutch said.
After countless calls and emails, Deutch said, the state finally provided forms that he and other representatives could submit with the names of constituents who had not been paid. But instead of getting assistance, he said, those claimants were simply referred back to the unemployment website.
“They are angry and frustrated and disgusted with the way this has been run out of Tallahassee,” he said of those whose claims seem to be lost the abyss.
The DEO, which processes unemployment claims, would not explain to the Palm Beach Post what, if anything, it is doing to ensure people get paid both state and federal unemployment benefits. It would not explain how the program is designed to work, nor where the problems lie. It would also not advise what claimants can do if they don’t receive all of their benefits.
“DEO is committed to ensuring all Floridians receive the benefits they are owed,” the DEO wrote in response to the Post’s request. “We have done everything we can to get payments out as quickly as possible, and some individuals received their state and federal benefits on different days. Over the next few weeks, individuals should begin to see their benefits coming together.”
No money, no answers
Edith Gleason, an interior designer from Fort Myers, said she doesn’t believe a word of it.
“The federal money is going to disappear, and how am I going to get that?,” she said of the federal benefits she has yet to receive.
At her wits end, Gleason said that six weeks of unanswered calls, letters and emails to both DeSantis and the DEO has prompted her to consider a more proactive approach.
“I've actually thought about driving to Tallahassee and knocking on somebody's door and saying, ‘I’m not leaving until somebody fixes this,’” she said.
But that is not likely to work either, according to Beau Goyott, a laid-off restaurant worker who in mid-April did just that.
To bring attention to the widespread problem of unpaid unemployment claims, Guyott walked 417 miles from West Palm Beach to the state capital, documenting via video on social media the frustrations of others along the way in the same boat.
He called the governor and DEO daily and even offered to work for free at the Department of Economic Opportunity to try to help others. But his offers and pleas fell on deaf ears, he said.
“They couldn't answer any of my questions,” he said of the response he received when he showed up at the DEO headquarters. “They had no idea what was going on, did not acknowledge any issues, anything.”
Two months after filing his claim, Guyott finally received three weeks of federal funds. But he has not received the rest of the weeks, and he has received nothing from the state, including answers, he said.
Now, as the pandemic rolls into summer and people return to work, some say they are in worse financial shape than ever before.
After 20 calls in one day, Mellion said he finally reached an operator at the DEO on Friday.
“When I am going to start seeing the federal check?” he said he asked the operator. “They told me I was ‘good to go.’ But when I asked when I would get it, the guy said, ‘We don’t know.’”
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.