FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – After waiting more than a month to have their unemployment application processed, many Floridians were shocked this week to find their eligibility rejected even when they thought they had met the requirements.
The state's CONNECT website to check status of claims was down for maintenance over the weekend, further frustrating thousands waiting for assistance after losing their jobs because of business closures caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It functioned erratically Monday, with many users getting repeated error messages.
Many who filed on the state's outdated website in March have been waiting five or six weeks with their claim stuck in pending status. Many were deemed ineligible this week, despite believing they had met requirements, including proofs of prior income.
Shannon Stewart, 31, paid taxes on $30,000 worth of income as a bartender and has worked at the same place for the past five years. After waiting more than a month, she was notified Monday that she was ineligible because she failed to look for another job. However, the state's website has a large disclaimer noting that requirement has been waived due to the pandemic.
The North Miami resident said she's certain she qualifies under the state guidelines, lamenting she “did everything right ... yet six weeks later I still have not been approved."
“I have never been more scared in my life that we will lose everything and not be able to afford my medication," Stewart said.
The Department of Economic Opportunity, which operates the state’s unemployment system, has been revamping its online benefits application portal and acknowledged the system was ill-equipped to handle the deluge of applications from hundreds of thousands of newly jobless.
As of Tuesday, the state said it received unemployment claims from more than 824,000 Floridians and had sent checks to nearly half of them, while about 263,000 of them have been rejected. However, some of those rejected, if not most of them, will be eligible for $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits.
Under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, gig workers and other independent contractors like Uber drivers and massage therapists who may not be eligible for state unemployment benefits are nonetheless eligible for the federal benefits. But Florida officials lagged in implementing those federal payments.
The state’s unemployment system was not previously capable of accepting applications from gig workers — leading to rejected applications — but officials said on Tuesday that it was now able to do so as part of a new pandemic assistance portal.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Colón, a 37-year-old self-employed hair stylist in Orlando, is waiting desperately. She knows she doesn’t qualify for the state benefits, but meets the criteria for the federal virus assistance. Now, the website is directing to her fill out a new application.
Many applicants complained they needed to again verify IDs, which they already had done for their previous application.
“I’m exhausted and hopeless,” said Colón, saying she fears she and many others will not see the benefits of the coronavirus rescue package.
“Lives, health and mental well-being are more important than reopening Disney and watching WWE,” she said, accusing Gov. Ron DeSantis of putting more attention on reopening big businesses than fixing the unemployment system.
Desperate for answers, hundreds have been reaching out to state Rep. Anna Eskamani on social media. She now has a caseload of more than 830 unemployed Floridians — many outside her jurisdiction. Eskamani said she now spends all her time working on these cases, trying to flag the most egregious ones to the DEO.
She has heard from many applicants deemed ineligible even though “you look at the wage they provided, it seems like they would be eligible and they have coworkers who are eligible, so there’s a lot of frustration there because it just doesn't make sense."
Her team also thinks some are inaccurately being deemed ineligible because their account flags them as inactive since they didn't refile for benefits every two weeks — a provision waived by DeSantis, but potentially a hiccup in the system.
“It has been very, very challenging because we’ve had to solve a lot of problems on our own and try to get the department to respond in real-time."
DeSantis has said 2,200 state employees from other agencies have been shifted to working temporarily for the unemployment agency to help meet the demand. But many people have complained they couldn't get through to someone by phone or, when they finally did, weren't given any answers.
Eskamani called the helpline twice last week looking for answers.
“It was his first day so he could not answer any question ... and the same thing with the second person I talked to," she said.
Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report in Tallahassee.