Undoing unemployment: New issue arises with Florida unemployment system

Abby Walton, WCTV.tv

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – In April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis described the state’s unemployment system by saying, “It was designed with all these different things to basically fail, I think.”

After COVID-19 shut down many businesses across the state, thousands of employees flooded the Department of Economic Opportunity’s website to make an unemployment claim.

Fast forward two months; protests were held outside the capital, as many are still waiting to receive benefits. Others are not able to access them at all. And some received money and then, with no explanation, stopped.

But now, a new problem with Florida’s unemployment system has arisen; it’s an issue popping up as people begin to head back to work.

At Chelsea’s Salon and Spa, it’s a new normal; you must first put on your mask, and answer a series of health questions.

The salon closed on March 23. Owner Sue Pena says it was an uneasy time.

“It was very scary and didn’t know what the outcome was going to be and whether we would still be in business,” she said.

Chelsea’s 34 employees headed to the DOE to access unemployment. Some were successful. Others were not.

“I had probably 75% that eventually were able to pull it, but we also have another issue where we’re not able to stop it,” Pena said.

In late April, Pena received a P.P.P. loan. She wanted to get her staff off state unemployment so others could have that money.

“I had kept them up to date on everything, as far as having to go into the system again and give them their back to work date,” she said. “Again, some had trouble doing that, some were able to go in and finish.”

But it didn’t seem to matter; after receiving four weeks of state benefits, the money never stopped. Some are now being overpaid by thousands of dollars.

“I’ve even had a couple people, it did stop for about two weeks and start up again,” Pena explained. “And they do have a date in there of a back to work date.”

Since April 19, Pena says her staff has followed the DEO’s online instructions on ending their claims; they’ve tried calling the hotline, re-entering their back-to-work dates emailing, even using an over payment coupon to try and send the money back.

“We have not heard any update on whether they received it, whether everything is taken care of that no other money is owed,” she said.

After hearing Pena’s concerns, we went looking for answers.

WCTV emailed the DEO and asked for an on-camera interview: They declined, but agreed to answer a list of written questions.

The DEO responded, saying in-part, “If you currently receive re-employment assistance benefits and no longer wish to receive benefits, do not claim your weeks and payments will stop.”

The email then goes on to provide information on how to return over payments; all information already available on their website. They also add suggestions that, Pena says, they’ve already tried.

In a response to a follow up from DEO, they told WCTV, they’ll look into those issues if we provide names, claimant ID’s and contact information.

We talked with Florida State Representative Loranne Ausley about Chelsea’s issue. Her office has also received a few calls from people with similar experiences.

“We are working individually and trying to walk those cases through,” Rep. Ausley said. “Now, we’re not getting great answers, either.”

Pena is now telling her stylists to try sending the money back, or save it until receiving guidance.

“What I would hate to happen is that it was used and then when it comes time to pay it back, they wont have it,” she said.

The stylists didn’t want to go on camera, but did tell WCTV that they’re happy to be at work again, but feel bad they can’t stop the money knowing so many other Floridians desperately need it.

On Monday, WCTV did send the DEO the information they asked for regarding Chelsea’s.

Rep. Ausley’s office also reached out and Pena sent them the same information.

In addition to reaching out to DEO and Rep. Ausley, WCTV reached out to State Senator Bill Montford and State Representative Roman Alexander’s offices to see if they were getting similar calls; Sen. Montford said no. We’re still waiting to hear back from Rep. Alexander.

WCTV has also reached out to Governor DeSantis’ office for comment, but have not yet heard back.

It’s not known how many Floridians are experiencing this, but until there’s more guidance, it looks like people can either wait until DEO sends you a notice of over payment or attempt to send it back and hope you get a response.

Rep. Ausley tells WCTV, many of these issues will need to be discussed during the next legislative session.

WCTV does have a trade deal for hair services with Chelsea’s Salon and Spa.

If you’re experiencing the same issues, you can contact Rep. Ausley’s office by emailing at [email protected].

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