DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Before the pandemic hit, many Florida families were already living paycheck to paycheck. As they were pushed out of work, many started to fall behind on bills.
What You Need To Know
- Hundreds of Florida residents say they have not received unemployment benefits they are eligible for
- One advocate says the issue is caused by glitches in the CONNECT programing
- The Florida DEO says there are many reasons a payment could be held up and that each claim is unique
Now compounding the financial instability is that some say they are going months without receiving promised unemployment benefits.
“The bills are piling up, that’s why I’m trying to get my benefits sent to me,” Daytona Beach mother Markeya Willis said. “I have kids and rent to pay.”
Before the pandemic, Willis was working at an assisted living facility, but was looking for something that would help her support her family further.
“I got hired at another assisted living facility, but then I ended up catching COVID the weekend before I was supposed to start,” she said. “I had to call the lady and let her know that I wouldn’t be able to make it and they ended up filling the job position.”
That was February 2021 and since then her requests for unemployment benefits have been on a steady hold.
“They’re telling me one thing, then I come back a month later because they tell me I have to wait a month, and it’s still on hold,” Willis said.
After repeated calls and efforts to clear things up, Willis said multiple supervisors at Florida Department of Economic Opportunity call centers told her the holds would be lifted and benefits paid out.
It’s now been 12 weeks, and without the benefits, her family is falling further behind.
Hundreds of people in recent weeks have shared similar accounts of having stalled claims within DEO’s system. A variety of holds related to "return to work" and other posted reviews.
“The backlog, it’s so bad right now,” said Vanessa Brito, a Florida unemployment advocate. “It’s due to glitches that are CONNECT-based and tech-based and just on their programming end, and they’re (claimants) are just sitting there in a backlog.”
Brito said she’s assisted countless Floridians who have reached out desperate for help.
“The bulk of the people that I’ve been dealing with have been in a hold since mid-December,” Brito said.
A spokesperson for Florida Department of Economic Opportunity told Spectrum News: “There are many claim specific reasons that would make the processing time for a Reemployment Assistance claim vary, including fact-finding from employers. Every claim is unique and requires due diligence to make sure the individual is eligible for the Reemployment Assistance benefits.”
While the agency said it is continuing to address claim issues as quickly as it can, delays and system problems have been a constant.
In March, ahead of the 2021 Legislative Session, DEO Executive Director Dane Eagle told Spectrum News the agency was overworked and understaffed.
“It’s gotten beyond frustration, I think it’s desperation now,” Brito said. “Even if people are coming back to work or starting to partially go back to work and things are going back to normal, things haven’t been normal for more than a year. People haven’t been able to keep up with their bills. People have lost their cars. Their credit has been shot. There are long term consequences now.”
Willis is counting on the past owed benefits to help her family catch up. In the meantime, she has found some work to help make end’s meet, but says only with the help of the past owed benefits can her family make any progress forward.
“I just needed something to make ends meet real fast, things are getting tough,” she said.
Starting Sunday, May 30, Floridians will have to prove they are searching for work to receive benefits. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ work search waiver will expire at the end of month. It should be noted that before the pandemic it was already a part of state law that individuals are required to search for work to receive benefits.
Florida DEO announced this week it will be cutting off extended $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits, as business owners say they’re struggling to hire workers.
Business workers say they are convinced their struggle is due to people earning too much on unemployment, a notion that job seekers push back on, arguing business owners simply don’t want to pay a fair wage.
DEO will end the federal extended benefits on June 26. Several other jobless benefit programs — including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation (MEUC) — will expire on September 6.
Florida's unemployment benefits are among the lowest in the nation, offering a standard rate of up to $275 per week for up to 12 weeks. Based upon the state’s pandemic unemployment rates, the 2021 year of benefits was increased to 19 weeks based by state law, but is expected to reduce to 12 weeks again in the year 2022.