Poor communication between the state agency in charge of unemployment claims and recipients has caused some unemployed Floridians to miss out on weeks of benefits, Senate Democrats say.
In mid-April, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) waived a rule that jobless benefit recipients must return to the department’s unemployment portal every two weeks to “claim their weeks.” But suspending that rule apparently violated federal law, and the department reinstated the requirement last week.
“To comply with federal law, weeks beginning May 10, 2020, claimants will be required to return to the CONNECT system every two weeks to request their benefits or ‘claim their weeks.’ In so doing, claimants will confirm that they are still unemployed and acknowledge that you are able and available for work,” according to a notice on DEO’s website.
But that change wasn’t directly communicated to applicants unless they checked the website or portal, say Orlando-area Democratic Sens. Randolph Bracy and Linda Stewart.
“What it has done is created confusion among people not sure whether they need to claim their weeks or not,” Bracy said during their online press conference Thursday. “What I believe is it hasn’t been communicated effectively to the people as far as their need to claim the weeks. There are people who have not claimed the weeks and they have stopped receiving payments, they’re not sure what to do.”
When the department let the two-week recertification waiver lapse, it extended a separate order that let people receive unemployment benefits without searching for work. But despite Secretary Jonathan Satter telling the Senator that applicants were notified, Bracy contends that there was no email or correspondence alerting applicants to the change.
The deadline for some to claim weeks since the rule restarted then may have passed, he added.
“The Governor needs to really outline what happened, how was it not a requirement before where he was able to waive it, and now, supposedly, the federal government is saying it’s required,” Bracy said. “I think we need some answers on that front.”
Stewart tried to offer her own explanation to the confusion.
“I think there was a communication problem between the federal and the state, and when they discovered that that was not possible, they did talk to the federal, and I think they gave them a two-week grace period or something,” she said. “But it’s still a requirement and they still have to do it and I think that’s not getting communicated well enough for people to know that.”
Stewart also questioned the number of claimants that have been paid, now nearly 986,000 according to the department. Several applicants received initial claims but stopped receiving payments at some point, according to reports, and she wondered whether those people were listed as paid.
“It’s like, you have a friend, you owe your friend $200 but you give him 20 in one week,” Stewart said. “Are you paid? No. So we need to get that straightened out.”
The Senator sent the Governor and Satter a letter with recommendations to improve the unemployment debacle as the concern shifts to manually fixing the problematic applications. That requires the applicant to get ahold of a customer service representative, sometimes after hours waiting, and reaching a representative with access to the unemployment portal.
“We need more people that can actually go online with that person’s application and ask them the pertinent questions that they feel were not answered correctly, answer them and put it up on the computer to make them eligible,” Stewart said.
She is also asking, along with several Democrats and the Florida AFL-CIO, for the Governor to extend the Re-employment Assistance period from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Many Floridians have already exhausted those weeks, and more will run out soon with the state now 10 weeks out from the first brunt of unemployment claims.
And after being notified of a data breach at the department by a reporter’s question, Stewart sent a separate letter to Satter seeking additional information about the security of applicants’ personal data.
“This information was not shared with me from you or DEO, nor was it posted on DEO’s website, begging the question of transparency and a possible breach of duty to disclose to the people whose personal information was entrusted to your care,” the Senator wrote.
“Given the agency’s track record with processing unemployment applications, I’m sure you will understand the great concern I have that all remedies have been quickly taken and that Floridians can be assured that their personal information is now secured and will be protected from future attacks,” she added.