Jobless Floridians who have struggled to file for unemployment benefits due to an overloaded state computer system and jammed phone lines will not lose out on money because their application was delayed.
On Wednesday, the person overseeing Florida’s unemployment benefits process says anyone who lost their job since March 9 will receive retroactive payments, regardless of when their application was successfully submitted.
Florida Department of Management Services Secretary John Satter was tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to lead the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity through its coronavirus unemployment surge. The current DEO Director Ken Lawson will oversee non-coronavirus related unemployment, DeSantis said last week.
Hundreds of thousands of Floridians have struggled to file for unemployment due to issues with the application system CONNECT or unable to get through to a person at the DEO call center.
According to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data, nearly seven of every eight Floridians who managed to file claims during the three weeks from mid-March until early April were waiting to have them processed — the worst rate in the country. According to the DEO, about 15.9% of more than 674,000 verified claims have been paid as of Wednesday afternoon totaling more than $143 million.
In an interview with News 6, Satter said the DEO will provide retroactive benefits to those who’ve lost jobs since March 9. Satter said he and Gov. Ron DeSantis plan to make an announcement later on Wednesday.
“We’ve had problems at the state level with the application process. That’s due to no fault of Floridians,” Satter said. “We’re going to honor those applications as of the date of March 9 if they were unemployed on that date. That’s when our system started to have problems.”
Adding to the backlog, a Disney World spokesperson confirmed that furloughed cast members were automatically enrolled in the state application system. More than 70,000 Disney cast members are furloughed as the theme park giant is closed.
CARES ACT: Contractors, self-employed can now apply through DEO for federal unemployment benefits
Satter also said independent contractors, gig-workers and self-employed individuals can apply now thru the existing application system for federal benefits.
“They will go through the same process as anyone would for the state unemployment process,” Satter said.
Although those workers are not eligible for state unemployment money, the federal CARES Act signed into law March 27 provides a $600 weekly payment as well as an additional weekly payment of a maximum of $275, depending on the claimant’s prior wages.
Prior to Wednesday, freelance and contract workers who applied told News 6 their applications were denied due to their ineligibility for state funds.
When will you see benefit payments?
DeSantis has previously said under normal circumstances jobless Floridians could see payments within 3 weeks. Satter couldn’t give a timeline for when people who applied in March and are still waiting on payments will begin to see those.
“We’re going as fast as we can. There’s people here working literally 22 hours a day, and then they lay down and they get an hour of sleep, and then they’re back at it,” Satter said. “Everybody here is tremendously focused on getting payments out as quickly as we can to Floridians.”
Satter said DeSantis has given him a lot of leeway to improve the system but an exact timeline on payments is unknown.
“We don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver,” Satter said. “Secondly, its very important that we be transparent with what we’re accomplishing every day.”
Getting answers to unemployment questions
The DEO is working on new resources to help guide Floridians through the application and unemployment process.
Satter asked for patience if they are calling with questions.
“Yesterday we received 400,000 phone calls,” Satter said, adding only about 70,000 were unique meaning people are repeatedly calling, adding to wait times and the workload.
The DEO website frequently asked questions section has been undergoing daily changes. Here’s a link to the most recent guide which includes guidance fro CARES Act applicants.
Satter described his new role as “the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life," adding the hardest part is hearing from people who are struggling.
“I feel for the people. I read the tweets. I see them on the news. I know people are really challenged right now,” Satter said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty on the health side, and now you have uncertainty on the financial side. That’s a perfect storm.”