ORLANDO, Fla. — Coming into the summer, Floridians will have face more requirements to receive declining unemployment benefits.

In spring 2021, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity announced unemployment benefits would only be provided to those who are eligible, including those who can prove they are searching for new work.

In an effort to spur applications, the state joined nearly two dozen other states in prematurely cutting off $300 weekly extended federal unemployment benefits.

Job seekers say finding well paid and stable work is easier said than done.

Editor’s Note: This article is intended to provide a single source of answers and resources pertaining to changing policies and impacts with Florida’s unemployment system. Spectrum News will regularly update this article, at times adding, removing, and/or editing elements as needed.

Unemployment key dates

  • May 29, 2021: Work Search Waiver expires
  • June 26, 2021: Waiting Week Waiver expires
  • June 26, 2021: FPUC $300 weekly benefits end
  • Sept. 4, 2021: Federal Unemployment Insurance Programs expire

Work search waiver expiration

The most immediate impact on eligibility for unemployment benefits is the expiration of the state’s Work Search Waiver and, for many, the requirement to register for job search assistance.

For years, law required individuals to actively pursue new work opportunities to remain eligible to receive benefits.

Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to extend the expiration of this waiver in an effort to ease the burden of returning to the workforce during the pandemic.

On May 12, Dane Eagle, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, announced the state would allow the waiver to lapse as business owners voiced frustration with hiring new employees. 

Many business owners say they’re struggling to hire new workers because people are "receiving more on unemployment than they would on the job," although economists say it's not that simple.

Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen said the changing dynamics of the nation’s workforce is not to blame entirely on extended unemployment benefits, but rather a number of factors, including people moving to new cities, people "upskilling" into new and more stable career fields, and competition among industries that are offering higher wages, better benefits, and hiring incentives.

Weekly work search

When the Work Search Waiver expires, claimants must submit work searches for every week of state and/or federal benefits requested.

The number of searches required is based on where a person lives. Those who live in counties with a population greater than 75,000 will have to complete a minimum of five work searches per week. Those who live in counties with a population of less than 75,000 will have to complete a minimum of three work searches per week.

In lieu of the work searches, claimants may also complete a CareerSource service appointment to satisfy that week’s requirement. 

Claimants request benefits biweekly, but are required to conduct work searches weekly.

“All claimants are required to complete the Work Search requirements,” DEO said in a statement. “This includes individuals who are furloughed, disabled, pregnant, self-employed, etc.”

To be eligible for unemployment benefits, a claimant has to be “able” to work, carving out disqualifiers for certain situations including those who may be pregnant, ill, or unable to find child care.

There are only a few exceptions to the work search requirements, but those exceptions include:

  • Union members who are in good standing and in regular contact with your union.
  • Individuals who are furloughed or temporarily laid off, but will return to the same employer within 8 weeks of your last day of work.
  • Individuals participating in approved job training programs through local CareerSource Florida center.
  • Individuals serving jury duty.

UNION EXEMPTIONS

We asked DEO about qualifications for union membership and whether only certain unions qualify for work search exemptions. A representative replied: “If an individual is a union member, there is an exemption to providing 5 work search contacts per week as long as the union remains in good standing and maintains regular contact with their union. This applies to all unions."

However, on June 8, 2021, DEO provided an important clarification to this exemption.

“The work search exemption applies to union members who customarily obtains employment through a union hiring hall,” DEO said. “Union members who meet this exemption meet the work search requirements if they report daily to their union hall.”

So how does one prove their contact with their union? “The claimant will have the ability to indicate that they are in a union during the initial Reemployment Assistance claim filing or continued claims process,” DEO told Spectrum News. “Once the claimant is identified as a member of a union, the union screen will appear during the requesting benefits process. The Claimant will then be prompted to answer questions regarding their standing with their union.”

HOW TO CONFIRM FURLOUGH

People who remain on furlough from their respective employer may be exempt from the weekly work search.

"The statutory definition of a temporary layoff recently changed due to H.B. 1463, which was signed by Governor DeSantis on May 7, 2021. If an individual’s job separation meets the definition of a temporary layoff, as that term is defined in H.B. 1463, then the work search requirements do not apply to that individual. Specifically, if the furlough is temporary, the claimant remains job attached, and is expected to return to work, but they do not have a return to work date, then they are exempt from the work search requirement," DEO told Spectrum News.

We’re awaiting specific instructions on how to upload employer letters. It appears the exemption will only be provided to those who obtain an employer letter confirming furlough status.

HOW TO PROVE FURLOUGH

According to DEO: “A claimant who indicates that they have been furloughed will be required to upload written documentation from the employer. If the Department is requiring documentation, this may be requested as fact finding. All fact finding documents may be found in the inbox, inside the CONNECT account.”

In summary: A person who is furloughed must get a letter from their employer confirming their furlough status and when they will return to work. If a person does NOT have a specific RETURN TO WORK date, they are required to complete the weekly job searches, even if they have a letter from their employer.

To provide a letter confirming furlough status and return to work date, an individual in CONNECT will answer “No” to the question “Did You Search For Work.”

Upon answering “No,” the system will prompt you to answer a series of questions explaining why you did not search for work.

Once that is submitted, DEO will follow up within a week or so with a Fact Finding inquiry, provided in one’s inbox in CONNECT, where you will further explain and be able to upload the letter from your employer.

This is a one-time task and will not have to be completed weekly once submitted.

What is considered a valid work search?

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity said people are required to give good faith in their search for new work, although they are not bound to strictly apply for jobs that they think they’re qualified for.

However, the longer a person is out of work, the more pressure they’ll face in accepting a new job.

“During the first 60 days a claimant collects Reemployment Assistance benefits, work will not be considered suitable if: (1) it pays less than 90% of the claimants average weekly wage during the base period; or (2) it would require a material change in occupation for the claimant,” a spokesperson for Florida DEO told Spectrum News.

Those standards, however, change over time.

“As the length of unemployment increases, offered work that may not have been suitable within the first few weeks of the claim may be considered suitable as prospects for desired work diminish,” DEO said. “After an individual has received 25 weeks or more of Reemployment Assistance benefits in a single year, suitable work is a job that pays the minimum wage and is 120% or more of the weekly benefit amount the individual is drawing. The Department will take into consideration any circumstances that compromise a claimant’s health and safety.”

For context, 25 weeks since the start of June would be early December, so those standards will apply to those who have been collecting unemployment since December 2020. For those people, most are earning benefits that calculate below minimum wage, so any minimum wage job offer would likely be considered a viable offer by DEO.

Turning down a job offer could put a claimant at risk of losing benefits.

“Individuals not returning to work when work is available or do not show good cause in refusing an offer of work could potentially be disqualified from receiving Reemployment Assistance Benefits,” Florida DEO said in a statement. “This also applies to the federal benefit programs authorized under the CARES Act and Continued Assistance Act.”

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is making it easier for employers to report to the state people who have turned down job offers.

It posted FAQs, outlining answers to a series of questions including:

  • What is considered a valid Work Search?
  • When is a job refusal acceptable?
  • Who needs to register with Employ Florida? 

Work registration

Anyone filing a new unemployment claim after May 29, 2021 will be required to register with DEO’s Employ Florida division. Registration is open to all claimants. 

Employ Florida and CareerSource provide job seekers with free jobs services such as job search assistance, resume proofing, and grants and financial assistance for job skill training programs.

Waiting week waiver expiration

Under normal circumstances, a person would have to wait one week after applying for unemployment benefits before becoming eligible to receive them. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order during the pandemic waiving this rule in an effort to speed up benefit distribution.

That waiver ends June 29, 2021.

End of federal extended unemployment benefits

Florida became the 23rd state in the nation to move to shut off extended federal unemployment benefits

With passage of the American Rescue Plan in early 2021, Congress approved providing $300 weekly supplemental unemployment benefits through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Fund. This $300 weekly benefit is above any other state and or federal benefits a person receives, and was supposed to be offered in Florida until early September when other federal programs expire. 

Business owners and lobbyists across the U.S. argue they’re struggling to hire workers, so in response, Republican-led states are rolling out preemptive cutoffs to the added incentives. Some governors have touted offering incentives for those who return to the workforce, but DeSantis said in late May he's not in favor of that idea.

The extended benefits will end June 26, 2021 in Florida.

“Transitioning away from this (FPUC) benefit will help meet the demands of small and large businesses who are ready to hire and expand their workforce,” Dane Eagle, Executive Director of Florida Department of Economic Opportunity said in a news release issued May 24.

The move came after the state announced private-sector employment increased by 18,800 jobs in April, with more than 460,000 jobs postings online.

Jobless Floridians argue that the benefits are critical in helping them make ends meet as they try to reenter the workforce.

The extended benefits have also created debate over increasing wages.

Florida’s current non-tipped minimum wage is $8.56 per hour, above the federal minimum wage. Florida voters several years ago voted to increase the state’s minimum wage. More than 60% of voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2020 to push Florida’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by the year 2026.

Florida’s current minimum wage is $8.56 an hour, but will increase to $10 an hour by September 30, 2021, and then continue to go up $1 per hour each year until 2026. The federal minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour.

To compare (using 40 hours per week, pre tax math below):

  • Florida's Current Minimum Wage: $8.56 / hour
  • FL Minimum Wage Annual Salary: $17,804
  • Federal Current Minimum Wage: $7.25 / hour
  • Federal Minimum Wage Annual Salary: $15,080
  • Annual salary at $15 an hour: $31,200

Wages have long been a focal point, at least in Central Florida, where the economy is anchored by many low-wage tourism jobs.

Low wages and a lack of affordable housing has put many families in prolong positions of financial stress.

End of all federal unemployment programs

While Florida will cut off extended benefits, funding and operations will continue for three remaining federal unemployment program. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation, and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation are scheduled to expire September 4, 2021.

Congress created the federal programs to supplement state benefits through the pandemic.

Florida has among the lowest state unemployment benefits in the nation, offering in regular years up to $275 per week for up to 12 weeks. Due to the 2020 unemployment rate, state law provisions temporarily offer up to 19 week’s worth of benefits to new claimants.

Beyond the changes

Beyond the major changes, there remain extensive issues with Florida’s unemployment processing system itself.

Gov. Ron DeSantis will have to decide whether to keep the legislature’s allotment of millions of dollars to be used for upgrading the faulty system.

Claimants continue to express frustration over extended wait times, locked claims, fraud, and payments that are missing for months. 

DEO is relying on a third-party company, IDme, to help verify identities and unlock claims, even as some tell Spectrum News their claims become “locked” repeatedly after verifying their information. 

“DEO provided an identity theft toolkit which details what Floridians should do if they are a victim of identity theft and steps they should take to mitigate fraudulent activity on their account,” DEO said. 

Another major issue as tax filing deadlines have passed, is that many claimants say they have also not gotten their 1099-G tax forms. DEO said people who have received incorrect 1099-G tax forms or are still looking for their form can fill out an inquiry at 1099GRequest.MyFlorida.com.

With the 2021 individual tax filing deadly already passed, the Internal Revenue Service posted a guide on options for those still missing 1099-G forms. 

Have claim troubles? Questions? Let us know with this survey.

Your Unemployment Questions: Answered

While Spectrum News tries to provide a comprehensive resource to answer unemployment questions, it is important to understand that each person’s situation is different and ultimately only Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will be able determine the appropriate response for each individual claimant’s unique situation.

QUESTION: What if accepted a new job but don’t start immediately, can I still claim benefits?

 

ANSWER: According to DEO’s Guide on Work Search (Page 7): “If you have a definite date to begin work within six weeks from this week ending date, you can list the employer once and selected “Promised Hire Date” as the result of the contact and enter the hire date in the provided field.”

In summary, you may be exempt from further work search requirements if you have a legitimate job offer you’ve accepted and will begin working the new job within SIX WEEKS from the ‘week ending date’ of the benefits you’re claiming.

 

If you are starting a new job more than six weeks from that point, or if you do not have a specific start date, or if your start date is still To Be Determined, then according to DEO you will have to continue to perform weekly work searches.  

 

QUESTION: What if the Work Search screen does not show up in CONNECT allowing me to submit my work searches

ANSWER: This is an issue many users have reported.

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity told Spectrum News: “The Department is aware that some claimants are experiencing challenges with entering their required work searches when requesting their weekly benefit Reemployment Assistance payments in CONNECT. The Department is working diligently to address this issue for claimants and apologizes for any inconveniences this has caused. The Department encourages claimants to enter their required work searches if prompted in CONNECT.

Spectrum News is awaiting an answer to a follow up question about potential penalties for those who do not or can not input work searches.

According to Florida Unemployment Advocate Vanessa Brito, a person should answer “Yes” when asked in CONNECT ‘Did you Search for Work’. If you do not see a screen come up providing you the ability to insert work searches, then you should look at the bottom of the screen for an “Add” or “Modify Answers” options under work search log. This should allow you to manually insert work searches.

If “Add” does not show, then Brito says you can follow these steps:

  1. Click “Modify Answers”
  2. Enter Work Search details
  3. Then click “Submit”

QUESTION: If DEO requires a person apply for jobs to remain eligible for benefits, but a person can’t work because of health, pregnancy, child care, or another related issue, does that exempt a person from the job search requirement

ANSWER: No. An individual must be able and “available” to work to be eligible for benefits.

“All claimants are required to complete the Work Search requirements,” a spokesperson for Florida Department of Economic Opportunity told Spectrum News. “This includes individuals who are furloughed, disabled, pregnant and self-employed.”

According to State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), DEO told her there are other programs to assist those who have a disability or are pregnant. 

“However there are other programs available for people living with a disability and expecting mothers. Vocational rehabilitation and blind services with DOE, http://www.fldoe.org/contact-us/services-to-floridians-with-disabiliti.stml , disability Insurance through Social Security https://www.ssa.gov/disability/ , and Temporary Cash Assistance through DCF https://www.myflfamilies.com/service-programs/access/temporary-cash-assistance.shtml.”

QUESTION: Do self-employed individuals receiving benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) have to conduct job searches to receive benefits?

ANSWER: Yes. DEO says everyone, with few exceptions, are required to conduct weekly job searches – or 1 weekly CareerSource service appointment – to satisfy the requirement to receive benefits.

However, DEO is providing flexibility for small business owners to seek income sources to satisfy work searches.

“Individuals who are self-employed and are receiving PUA benefits are allowed to report their attempts to gain clients for their self-employment in order to meet their weekly work search requirements,” DEO told Spectrum News in a statement.

This allows self-employed individuals who usually rely on clients to report efforts used to obtain clients in lieu of direct job searches.

QUESTION: Do furloughed individuals have to search for work?

ANSWER: “Those who are furloughed with no return date to their employer are required to complete weekly work searches,” DEO said in a statement. “Those who are furloughed, or on temporary layoff, with a return date to the same employer within 8 weeks of their last day of work are exempt from the work search requirements.”

There have been follow up questions pertaining to those who do not have a specified return to work date or those who have obtained employment, but will not begin working immediately. This includes a number of furloughed Walt Disney World cast members who are waiting, without a specific date, to return to work.

According to DEO: “If the claimant separates due to employer initiated furlough that is temporary and the claimant remains job attached and expected to return to work for the employer, the employer should then provide documentation. If the individual is unable to provide verifiable information concerning the furlough, job attachment and return to work with the employer, they will not be exempt from the work search requirement."

For the Disney cast members, they too will have to obtain documentation from Disney showing they are on furlough and expected to return to the job at some point.

It’s not clear yet exactly how that information should be provided, although it is expected that a claim may go through a Fact Finding process where the documentation can be uploaded to DEO.

QUESTION: If a person is participating in an unpaid internship, do they need to complete work search requirements to obtain unemployment benefits?

ANSWER: According to a response provided to State Representative Anna Eskamani’s office, participating in an unpaid internship may not necessarily be reason to forego a work search.

DEO says work search waivers will only be provided In internship situations if an individual is in an “approved training program”, and must meet a variety of points of criteria including:

  • Participating in an approved job training program for a career and/or skills that are in demand.
  • Claimants present skills must be minimally needed in current workforce.
  • Program must be approved by Florida Department of Education.

DEO recommends a person consult with CareerSource to determine if their training program would qualify for an exemption.

According to Florida unemployment advocate Vanessa Brito, there is a specific process to follow if you are in an approved training program and wish to remain eligible for benefits.

 

1) Do ONLY 1 of the following: Answer “Yes” to looking for work (Question #1 when claiming weeks) OR Answer “Yes” to visiting a “CareerSource” Center (Question #2 when claiming weeks).

 

2) If you answered “Yes” to Question 1 then you will choose “Florida CareerSource Center” and then the menu will allow you to select your local office.

If you answered “Yes” to Question 2 (you made an in-person visit to CareerSource, then you will choose your local office information on the next screen.

3) Your local CareerSource office will receive a notification and they will research and send an Individual Training Assistance approved form to DEO.

This will be all you need to get your exemption.

If you’re interested in enrolling in a training program, you can check out available programs by region.

QUESTION: For those who no longer live in Florida, but still collect unemployment from Florida, do they have to search for jobs only in Florida?

ANSWER: No. There are a variety of reasons why people outside the State of Florida may qualify for benefits here. It could be they’re an out of state employee of a Florida-based company, or they’ve since moved out of state. A job search is a job, so long as it’s verifiable, proving who you applied with, when, and details about the job as requested in CONNECT.

QUESTION: What kind of jobs are considered suitable?

ANSWER: The top section of this guide, and DEO’s FAQs online provide an outline on what the agency considers a valid work search. In an effort to encourage individual to consider any and all potential work opportunities, there is not a standard for what kind of jobs a person must consider, skill wise, nor does DEO require an individual to apply only for jobs they may feel they are suitable or qualified for.

“The Department encourages claimants to apply for jobs that are in their best interest,” DEO said. “Applying for a job that an individual may not be qualified, or overqualified, is for an acceptable work search as long as the claimant reports the appropriate information within CONNECT.”

QUESTION: Does driving for Uber or another gig-economy job provide an exemption for the work search?

ANSWER: No. Taking on a part time or gig economy job does not exempt one from having to apply for work. Additionally, the income can also impact reporting requirements.

“A claimant’s continued eligibility for Reemployment Assistance benefits may be impacted if a claimant is still working or are partially underemployed and earning more than their weekly state and or federal benefit amount. Claimants should report all income earned when requesting weekly benefit payments,” DEO said.

QUESTION: I keep getting kicked off of CONNECT and can’t upload or provide my work search or claim information. What is happening?

ANSWER: As of June 11, 2021, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity told Spectrum News they are still working to determine the exact causes of why some individuals may be having issues with remaining connected to the system.

Florida Unemployment Advocate Vanessa Brito has provided the following steps to try to get around getting kicked offline repeatedly:

1) Login to CONNECT (you may get kicked out a few times)
2) Once you’ve logged in, move the mouse cursor over to the left hand menu
3) RIGHT CLICK over the “Request Benefit Payment”
4) A menu will pop up
5) Click “Open In New Window”
6) Continuing claiming weeks
7) Complete for every set of weeks you need to request

 

QUESTION: Why can’t I get a hold of anyone on the phone at DEO?

ANSWER: A growing number of individuals have reported not being able to get through to call centers for DEO.

In mid-June, DEO announced it ended its contract with third party call service provider Titan Technologies/KForce.

DEO said that it is using a share of $92.5 million in newly allocated state and federal funds to begin hiring up to 435 people who DEO will directly employ to address claim issues and provide customer services, including call center services. In the interim, DEO is relying on services from a contractor called Lighthouse, which is providing 50 call center agents through the Unique Abilities Partner Program.

QUESTION: My account was hacked, what do I do?

ANSWER: Per Florida Department of Economic Opportunity: “Fraud detection and research is ongoing at the Department, and we continue to look for additional ways to mitigate instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud and protection Floridians identities. Recently, the Department implemented a fraud prevention measure that prevents claimants from changing their banking information and their email address within CONNECT to help mitigate instances of accounts being hacked. Claimants may find instructions on how to change this information through CONNECT. Claimants are always encouraged to verify that their account information, such as their contact information and bank account information, is accurate and up to date each time they access their account. Claimants should also make sure to verify any suspicious emails or phone calls to make sure they are official correspondences and to mitigate instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud or identity theft on their end.”

Additionally, DEO this Spring started a partnership with a company called ID.me to assist in verifying the identities of claimants.

“We have integrated the use of ID.me to assist new claimants and those with locked claims in CONNECT,” DEO said. “Claimants experiencing a locked account may receive a notice by email or U.S. mail with the necessary procedure to have their account unlocked. The Department has also provided a link in CONNECT (on the claimant’s locked homepage) directing them to ID.me to verify their identity so the department can unlock their account. The Department has also launched an online fraud form for victims to report identity theft and UI theft.”

QUESTION: I’ve verified my identity, but my account keeps getting locked. What do I do?

ANSWER: A common complaint, is that once individuals verify their information by provided requested information via ID.me, accounts continue to lock again and again. DEO told Spectrum News “The Department is aware of an issue where CONNECT accounts continuing to be locked after individuals have verified their identity through ID.me. The Department is working to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Claimants should not re-verify their identity with ID.me as this does not speed up the processing of unlocking their account.”

Florida Unemployment Advocate Vanessa Brito says the relocking issue appears to be triggered when a claimant claims their weeks.

“They claim their weeks and shortly after, they are locked out again,” Brito said. “In my cases, this means claimants will not receive the payment because they were locked after claiming weeks.”

Two options here:
1) Waiting 48 hours to be automatically unlocked again and every time. It may take up to a week, thereby delaying the payment.
2) Call/Email the FIRRE agents to manually unlock.

QUESTION: I’ve been waiting for months and still not have received benefits that are owed. What do I do?

ANSWER: There are a number of reasons why some are finding benefits delayed. Reasons include awaiting adjudication, Return to Work holds, or other verification issues. Florida Unemployment Advocate Vanessa Brito says most of the hold ups are to blame on system glitches. This includes individuals who are moved from one program to another erroneously, such as someone put into Regular UC when they should be in PUA.

Per Florida Department of Economic Opportunity: “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 Reemployment Assistance Benefits,” DEO told Spectrum News.

If a person has not received benefits because they were reclassified as “Regular Ineligible,” appealing monetary determination will not work. The individual must appeal their claim entirely by completing an Appeals Form and emailing it to RA.AppealsClerk@DEO.MyFlorida.com