ORLANDO, Fla. — Sharing their struggles online, many applicants for Florida unemployment benefits say they are now realizing another shared issue: certain federal payments seemed to have stopped coming.
Christina Page is among those who say she has not received federal unemployment payments since May 18.
“It’s so frustrating, before I ever got a check it had me in tears,” Page said. “I would call and call and call and get hung up on, or they didn’t know the answer, or they were sorry they weren’t trained.”
Laid off from her banquet job March 22, Page estimates she has made thousands of calls, while spending days on end trying to figure out why she has not been paid in full.
Like others, Page spends much of her day unable to get through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Instead, she tries to navigate the unemployment system with the help of others posting online.
Page estimates the DEO owes her more than $6,540 for weeks not worked, overshadowing the few payments she has received.
When Spectrum News first asked DEO about the missing payments several weeks ago, DEO said it could be connected to a transition to bi-weekly payment distributions.
Tuesday, a DEO spokesperson told Spectrum News that the agency has now identified “two technology concerns that may have prevented an individual from receiving their Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payment over the last few weeks.”
“Individuals who requested that their claim be backdated were not included in recent payment files for the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments,” the spokesperson said. “We are working diligently to ensure these claimants are made whole as quickly as possible. At this time, the claimants do not need to do anything but should continue to request benefits as long as they are unemployed or partially unemployed. The department anticipates having the issue resolved quickly and being able to provide these payments to eligible claimants.”
The second “technology concern” the agency said is based on waiting weeks.
“Additionally, the department has identified that some claimants were not paid their Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payment for their waiting week. The department has identified these individuals and should have them paid their $600 federal payment within 5 business days.”
Growing more frustrated, some are taking their pleas for help from social media to in-person. Advocates are organizing three statewide unemployment protests Wednesday (June 9) in Orlando, Tampa, and Tallahassee. Orlando’s demonstration is scheduled for 10 a.m. at Lake Eola downtown.
“This is money people need to buy groceries, to pay for medications, to do all of the things that families need to do,” said Florida State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat representing District 37 (Miami-Dade).
The senator says Florida’s unemployment problems have been known for years.
“Part of what the governor’s office is trying to celebrate is the fact that most people have been paid something … still hundreds of thousands of Floridians probably who are eligible, just have not made it through the gauntlet that is this application process, and so many others who have not been paid all of the weeks they’re due,” Rodriguez said.
Florida’s unemployment troubles became a focal point Tuesday when Rodriguez testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.
“I’m calling for them to amp up their oversight,” Rodriguez said. “The amount of waste, the amount of bureaucratic hurdles people have to go through, it’s a nightmare, and it has to be cleaned up to make these systems fair and efficient.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) are among those calling on an inspector general to investigate the U.S. Department of Labor’s oversight of Florida’s unemployment system, calling it “uniquely poor” in being able to function.
“We ask that you immediately begin an audit and investigation into the Department of Labor’s oversight of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunities failure to efficiently process unemployment insurance claims and deliver benefit payments during an economic crisis and the persistent, critical flaws in the state’s unemployment systems,” the pair of senators wrote in their letter.
They continued, “While all states have seen record increases in the number of its residents applying for unemployment, the state of Florida’s performance has proved uniquely poor in its abject inability to assist millions of Florida residents who have applied for and continue to await unemployment benefits.”
The senators also point to multiple state auditor general reports that have attempted to sound a warning over the years about the performance of the unemployment system.
The current system was implemented under the Rick Scott administration prior to 2014 at a cost of more than $66 million. A 2019 Auditor General report outlined hundreds of issues with the CONNECT system, that long ago predicted the very problems that now exist.
Politico was first to report last week that the governor’s own pick to oversee DEO also tried to issue a warning. Politico reported DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson outlined his concerns in a December 2018 memo for the DeSantis Transition Team. The governor eventually transferred oversight of the unemployment system to Secretary Jonathan Satter of the Florida Department of Management Services.
Representatives for Gov. Ron DeSantis and DEO say finger-pointing is merely partisan politics.
“It should come as no surprise that Sen. Schumer is playing partisan politics in Washington, D.C. and no Florida Senator is asking for an investigation,” Helen Ferre, Gov. DeSantis’ Communications Director, told Spectrum News. “The Inspector General has not completed the investigation that Gov. DeSantis requested regarding the procurement and funding of the CONNECT system used by the Department of Economic Opportunity. More than $4.6 billion has been paid to close to 1.3 million Florida residents and under Gov. DeSantis’ direction, more will be done to ensure that all who are owed unemployment benefits receive them.”
DeSantis has made multiple public comments committing to ensure that applicants receive full payments for what their owed.
While DEO says it has paid $4.7 billion to more than 1.2 million claimants, there remain questions they have yet to answer, despite months of asking. Those questions include how many claimants have been paid in full, and what is the progress on double-checking the more than 400,000 claims that many say have been wrongly deemed ineligible.