(TNS) — With no apparent notice, the state of Florida has reverted to a system of paying benefits to the unemployed every other week, at a time when thousands of people have also seen their federal benefits come to a halt.
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said the change from weekly payments took most people by surprise because it was not announced in advance.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “They didn’t give us a head’s up that they were going biweekly. ... People thought they were being cut off when they weren’t being cut off.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Employment Opportunity said the agency has traditionally paid benefits biweekly but had gone to a weekly system to help cope with the pandemic emergency.
“In an effort to get Floridians paid as quickly as possible, DEO has pushed out payments as quickly as possible and many claimants have received benefit payments weekly and at different times,” said the spokeswoman, Paige Landrum. “Moving forward and in an effort to streamline payments for Floridians, DEO is transitioning benefit payments back to a biweekly schedule.”
In the meantime, Landrum acknowledged that a number of people had not received their $600 weekly payouts from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. That money is paid on top of Florida’s benefits, which are capped at $275 a week, one of the lowest payouts in the country.
Thousands of out-of-work Floridians had been receiving their $600 checks for weeks, but they halted around Memorial Day week.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, compiled a list of almost 8,500 people who were affected. And there are likely many more.
“These are folks that are eligible, have been claiming their weeks and getting their benefits on a regular basis, and then the $600 suddenly stopped,” Eskamani said. “Meanwhile, folks have really suffered. Three weeks with no $600 payments is a big deal. That can be someone’s rent.”
Why Payments Stopped
Landrum blamed “two technology concerns” for the missing payments.
Landrum said the first problem involved individuals who requested that their claims be backdated but were not included in recent payment files for those payments.
“We are working diligently to ensure these claimants are made whole as quickly as possible,” Landrum said. “At this time, 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 problem concerned those who were not paid their federal money for their so-called “waiting week,” which traditionally is a pause in payments covering the first week after an unemployed person initially files.
“The department has identified these individuals and should have them paid their $600 federal payment within five business days,” Landrum said.
The DEO warned that federal benefits could be interrupted when Florida launched its tool for residents to collect retroactive pay, money they had not been able to access when the CONNECT system broke down during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jonathan Satter, secretary of the Department of Management Services, said during a discussion on Facebook that workers who backdated their applications prior to March 29, the date federal benefits began, might lose a portion of their federal pay. Only workers who weren’t able to apply between March 9 and April 8 could request to backdate their applications.
But it’s unclear if that’s why some workers stopped getting the federal payments through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, known as FPUC. Many residents who had never collected retroactive pay also saw their federal payments halted.
“These generic answers don’t address nearly all of the problems and possibilities as to why we are not being paid. Neither of those apply to the thousands of people that have been active and eligible and paid like clockwork from the beginning and then poof it all stopped,” one user commented on Eskamani’s Facebook page.
“I did not backdate anything. It just stopped,” another person wrote.
Eskamani said it’s another instance in which Florida’s unemployment system has failed workers.
“DEO has to ping the federal government for the FPUC payments. It’s not that Florida has a separate trust fund for FPUC payments and they can easily tap into it. Their explanation seems to say that for some individuals, they forgot to do that,” Eskamani said.
A 'Uniquely Poor’ Response
It’s the latest problem to plague Florida’s broken unemployment system, which has struggled to keep up with the millions of residents out of work and filing claims because of the virus and government-ordered shutdowns. Gov. Ron DeSantis has blamed Deloitte Consulting, the company hired in 2010 to build the CONNECT system, for the backlog of unpaid claims, and blamed residents for making errors on their applications that have made them ineligible for benefits.
DeSantis ordered a state investigation into the $77 million CONNECT system, and two top-ranking U.S. senators called early this week for a federal investigation into Florida’s “uniquely poor” handling of unemployment and the DEO’s “failure to process unemployment claims and deliver benefits in a timely fashion."
The lag in disbursing federal payments in Florida comes as Congress is debating whether to extend the program beyond the end of July, when the program, which was created under the coronavirus relief act, is set to expire. U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday that the Trump administration opposes an extension.
“We expect the economy to be deep into the process of reopening, with shutdown orders ended and millions of Americans freed to return to work,” Scalia said.
Republicans on the committee largely agreed and argued that continuing to offer $600 federal payments would discourage Americans from returning to work. Democrats shot down that argument and said with so many people still out of work — unemployment in Florida hit 12.9 percent in April — the federal benefits are invaluable.
“If we let this benefit expire at the end of July, Mr. Secretary, I’d argue that we’re going to throw tens of millions of people who rely on them into a financial crisis family by family all across the United States of America,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, told Scalia.
Rodriguez, the state senator, who spoke before the committee, said cutting off federal benefits could have devastating effects in Florida. He estimates Florida has distributed only half of the fedearl money owed to eligible workers.
“Florida entered this crisis with one of, if not the, least prepared unemployment systems,” Rodriguez said. “The CARES Act lifted my constituents when Florida’s system alone would not have. ... CARES Act programs ought to remain in place until recovery has reached all sectors, otherwise communities like mine, I fear it will set us back in our path to recovery."
©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.