Mother of 4 says Make Ends Meet ended 7-month wait for DEO benefits

Fort Myers make-up artist: “Something has to change”

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Sara Marie, of Fort Myers, is one of thousands of Florida residents tired of waiting for unpaid unemployment benefits, wondering if they will ever get paid.

In her case, the divorced mother of four has been waiting around seven months for an estimated $10,000 in back benefits from the Department of Economic Opportunity.

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“There should be no reason that day after day we’re calling the DEO and all you get is, ‘Sorry, nobody can take your call right now,’” Marie told News 6.

She was so frustrated she filed a lawsuit against the DEO in September but received no response from the state.

She turned to News 6 and Make Ends Meet to expose what she calls “a broken system” that has left people on the financial brink.

“I’m not the only one,” she said. “The DEO says, ‘Oh, this slipped through the cracks,’ and I was like, ‘No, there’s a fundamental problem with the entire system.’”

Andrew Nixon, the DEO’s deputy director of communications, is aware of the backlog of unpaid benefits.

Nixon said since the start of the COVID-19 unemployment benefits demand in March 2020, the department has “adjudicated nearly 30 million issues, processed more than 5.8 million claims and paid more than 2.4 million eligible claimants their reemployment assistance benefits.”

Still as we get closer to the 2-year mark of the COVID pandemic’s economic fallout, people like Marie find themselves a casualty of a system still trying to get it right.

“I’m infuriated,” she told News 6. “Something has to change with the DEO. It’s embarrassing honestly.”

State Rep. David Smith (R) of Seminole County District 28 told News 6 there are “49 states with better unemployment programs than Florida.”

But the system will be upgraded in 2022.

As far as the delays in back benefits, Smith was confident anyone owed jobless benefits would receive them.

“If you are owed the money, you have a legitimate claim,” Smith said. “You will get that money.”

Orange County State Senator Linda Stewart (D) of District 13 agreed. Stewart has made several trips to Tallahassee this year to present DEO accounts of constituents unable to collect benefits.

“People who haven’t been paid for eight or nine months—they’re desperate,” Stewart said. “I think we need a new system and we just can’t wait much longer.”

Both Stewart and Smith said they will support increases in the weekly unemployment benefits, as well as an extension of weeks currently at 13.

A representative from the DEO called Marie on Monday, after News 6 presented her case to Tallahassee. The investigator confirmed there are “a lot of weeks on hold” and she is working to “review the file and get her paid.”

The DEO said it is dealing with an estimated 245,000 unemployment issues involving unpaid benefits.

If you have an unemployment issue, email or text the words “Make Ends Meet” to 407-676-7428.

Remember to send us a screenshot of your DEO account and any communications you have received from the DEO.

About the Author:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.