ORLANDO, Fla. – Two state senators hosted a Q&A Thursday in an attempt to get some clarity from the official overseeing Florida’s coronavirus unemployment response but instead, hundreds of frustrated people were left with unanswered questions.
The Facebook live hosted by Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo and Sen. Jeff Brandes was quickly flooded with questions in the comments for Department of Management Services Secretary John Satter, the man appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to step in and oversee the state’s unemployment surge. About 1,200 people tuned in to watch.
Since mid-March, Floridians unable to work due to the pandemic have struggled to receive unemployment benefits through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity website CONNECT or to speak to a human due to the volume of calls and applications.
As of Wednesday, the DEO has made more than 416,000 unemployment benefit payments out of the 916,000 unique claims submitted, according to the most recent numbers on the DEO dashboard. The state has paid more than $579 million in unemployment, more than half funded by federal pandemic aid.
The one takeaway from the Q&A was Satter’s remarks about federal aid for people who have exhausted regular unemployment benefits and explained why those who have been told to apply for those benefits at Floridajobs.org can’t find the application because the state isn’t ready to process those benefits, known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC.
“The PEUC program provides up to 13 weeks of Reemployment Assistance benefits to individuals who have exhausted regular unemployment benefits under state or federal law or have no rights to regular unemployment benefits under state or federal law. Floridians may be eligible for up to $275 + $600 in weekly benefits. The additional $600 applies to weeks of unemployment beginning March 29, 2020, and ends July 25, 2020,” according to Floridajobs.org. “The first week a claimant can be compensated on this benefit is the week beginning March 29, 2020, and the last payable week is the week ending Dec. 26, 2020.”
“We are building the system to be able to accept those applications because these are federal dollars,” Satter said.
He said it could be another five to seven days before those applications can be processed through the DEO CONNECT system.
Earlier this week, the DEO put out information on its website telling people who were declared ineligible they may qualify for pandemic unemployment assistance or PUA benefits under the federal CARES Act, however, in order to apply for those Floridians must go through the CONNECT system and be invited to apply, according to the DEO. This guide includes screenshots of that process. If anyone applied prior to April 5 seeking federal benefits only they will also need to fill out the initial application again on the CONNECT site before being invited to apply for PUA.
More than 266,000 people were declared ineligible and may qualify for federal benefits, according to the DEO dashboard.
Satter also addressed how the state plans to honor retroactive payments for people who weren’t able to to apply sooner due to website issues but that fix is also not ready.
The secretary said they are working on a way for people to backdate their application to when they would have applied if they could get into CONNECT.
“If you tried to get into the primary system when the system started to have issues in mid-March you would be able to attest you tried to access and couldn’t, you could backdate,” Satter said, adding, “We’re building out the tool to allow people to do that.”
Again, no timeline was offered for when people could see those retroactive payments.
News 6 has received hundreds of calls and emails from people who are still waiting on benefits and spend hours a day trying to get answers or trying to find out how to apply for PUA or PEUC.
To help handle the influx of calls and applications, the DEO has brought in contractors to the tune of $120 million and counting, state spending records show, and more than 2,000 state employees from other agencies are also processing applications.
Satter said the best number to call with questions is 1-833-FL-APPLY (352-7759) and indicated calling in the later afternoon might offer some relief from the long wait times callers have experienced. Many of the comments on the Facebook live said they were calling that number and were disconnected or the person they spoke to didn’t have answers.
Before the Q&A ended, Satter said offered up a promise.
“I can’t express this enough, hold us accountable,” he said. “It will take us some time but we’re going to get there.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Secretary Satter was speaking about PUEC benefits not PUA benefits.