ORLANDO, Fla. — New numbers showcase the surge of Floridians suddenly thrust into unemployment as the state remains overwhelmed with the process.

Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported Monday that it had received 1.5 million claims from 652,191 people between March 15, 2020 and April 19, 2020.

Governor DeSantis said last week that they believed there would be a large number of individuals submitting multiple applications. Some have pointed out this has been done because of few answers from DEO and uncertainty about the statuses of applications amid widespread technical glitches and errors.

More noticeable is the status of the bulk of those applications.

Of the 652,191 individuals who filed claims, 162,039 applications have been processed. Of those, only 40,193 applicants have received benefits.

That is 6.2 percent of applicants receiving payouts, totaling $59.9 million.

State leaders have long pointed to a system that’s simply overwhelmed as the reason for the delay in application processing.

DeSantis said the state is making progress in expanding capacity through adding more servers, and adding more staff to take calls and process applications. He also appointed Department of Management Services Secretary Jon Satter to oversee the unemployment system long plagued by various technical problems, sidelining DEO Director Ken Lawson.

Last week, Secretary Satter compared the system to an aging car.

“We just loaded a car with a lot of passengers, and we’re expecting a car to drive 10 times as fast than it was built for,” Secretary Satter said.

March Applicants Still Waiting for Benefits

“Florida is the Jeep, the tires are spinning and we’re stuck in the mud, we know it,” said Tyler Menard, who has spent a month trying to apply for benefits. “The Jeep knows we’re stuck in the mud, but we need to know when the tow truck is coming.”

A lack of transparent communication has been a common complaint among applicants, saying DEO nor DeSantis has done enough to communicate clearly what the troubles are, and more importantly when the troubles will be fixed and when the majority of applicants will receive benefits.

Menard was furloughed from his entertainment job March 17. He told Spectrum News he spent a week just trying to apply.

“Spent days, long days, and hours trying to get through, with the website constantly refreshing pages,” Menard said.

He estimates he has spent more than 40 hours applying, to only then be stuck in purgatory with no change in his status. His concern now is that he’s seeing people who applied for benefits in April get payouts, while he and others see no change in their status.

“Now that people two weeks ahead of me are getting approved. I’m worried, for my own sake and the people who filed along with me,” Menard said.

Spectrum News has been pressing state leaders for weeks for complete answers to a variety of questions.

On Monday, Tiffany Vause, communications director for Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, told Spectrum News she was not aware of the issue with March filers not receiving benefits while April filers were, but promised to look into it.

Vause added there could be a number of explanations, including that some information may be missing from a person’s application, although it’s not clear if that is what is happening.

A person wrote in a Facebook support group:

“Finally got someone from DEO on the phone. If at the time you did your application it gave you a notice that the system could not verify your Social Security number but allowed you to continue, there is your problem. The lady asked me a few questions and cleared me for payment immediately. I called the line for the Employers and they called me back within two hours.”

Taxes Taken out of Federal Benefits?

Another issue concerning to some applicants is receiving the full amount of benefits.

In an effort to speed up the time it takes to get federal benefits to people, DEO has opted to send hard checks in the mail. However, those early recipients are finding the $600 checks are actually totaling $540.

The reason is that unemployment benefits are considered taxable income.

Vause told Spectrum News that the agency opted to withhold the taxes now when sending out the check to speed up the process, but as they further upgrade and integrate their online system, people will be able to choose between having taxes withheld at the time of receiving benefits, or opting for taxes later.

There are also concerns among those who are self-employed, freelancers, gig economy workers, and others who don’t traditionally qualify for state benefits.

They are supposed to qualify for $600 per week in federal benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA) as part of the CARES Act.

However, Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, D-Orlando, says the provision of the CARES Act states recipients also qualify for funds beyond that totaling weekly benefits at half the rate of state benefits.

That means PUA recipients would receive:

  • $600 per week
  • +$137.50 per week (half the rate of Florida’s $275 weekly benefit).

Lack of Answers Frustrates Federal, State Lawmakers

Murphy said the $600 benefit and the additional half benefit are both funded by the federal government.

It is a stipulation that neither DeSantis nor the DEO has specifically outlined previously.

Murphy said the agency has not answered her staff’s inquiries to make sure those benefits would be distributed.

Vause told Spectrum News that more details about PUA benefits and distribution in Florida will be released in the coming days, but did not reject the standing of the provision.

“We’ll keep applying pressure to the state government to deliver the aid the federal government has provided to Americans across this country and especially in Florida,” Murphy said. “The incompetence of the state government and indifference to human consequences of that incompetence is unacceptable. They need to get their stuff together and get this relief out to Floridians as soon as possible.”

What Monday’s release of status numbers does not reveal is how many of the numbers also include Disney cast members. Walt Disney World on Sunday furloughed the majority of its 77,000 cast members, although the company has so far declined to say exactly how many workers are off the job.

The frustration among the technical glitches and delays includes the ability to simply get information.

Florida Rep. Ann Eskamani, D-Orlando, recently expressed frustration online with not being able to get information from agency directors or the governor’s office; a notion shared by Murphy and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee.

“I’ll tell you, it’s been frustrating for our case workers because Florida DEO has not responded to any of our requests on behalf of our constituents,” Murphy said. “I think that the state government has not been serving Floridians, and they don’t get a pass on answering to constituents.”