Economic distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is being compounded in Florida by the state’s failure to deliver legally mandated relief to hundreds of thousands of desperate residents.
The state’s own numbers make that statement irrefutable: According to the latest count provided by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the agency responsible for administering benefits to residents out of work because of the pandemic, only 33,623 Floridians out of more than 800,000 applicants have received money. Not only are residents not receiving the state’s own benefits, which, at just $275 a week, are the fifth lowest of any state in the nation, but they are missing out on the additional $600 weekly benefits being dispensed by the federal government. Unfortunately, no one I talked to can tell me when most of the checks will start coming in.
Gov. Ron DeSantis blames a malfunctioning $77 million computer system put in place in 2013 by his predecessor, Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator. The system, critics say, was designed, perversely, to fail at the very mission it was supposed to do: get money to workers who lose their jobs. Instead, it worked as a roadblock to applicants and kept costs low for businesses. Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota County and head of the state GOP, tweeted that “someone should go to jail” over the system’s failures. I reached out to Gruters for comment; he did not respond.
$77 million? Someone should go to jail over that. https://t.co/zeoSJs7grf— Joe Gruters (@JoeGruters) April 2, 2020
But in the more than a month since the Floridians began losing their jobs, the DeSantis administration has struggled to resolve the problems. One major area that remains unresolved is benefits for gig workers such as Uber drivers, personal trainers and other contracted workers. Florida does not provide jobless benefits to gig workers. But the $2 trillion Coronavirus relief act signed into law March 27 offers $600 in weekly assistance from the federal government to gig workers as well as to people laid off from traditional jobs.
The problem is that gig workers must apply through their state jobless benefits site—and Florida literally still does not provide the means to do so. The more than 1 million gig workers in Florida cannot apply for assistance from the federal government because the state has for weeks failed to add that option to its jobless benefits application process. DeSantis says the state hopes to resolve that problem in the next week.
Beyond the numbers and the political blame game are the stories of individual Floridians out of work, without support and increasingly desperate. State Rep. Margaret Good (D-Sarasota) is now receiving 150 calls a day from residents seeking help in navigating the state’s broken and overwhelmed benefits system.
One constituent, 281 attempts to reach Department of Economic Opportunity. This is no way to operate. Constituents are telling us today the problems remain and system has been not working all morning. #floridaunemployment #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/KmeSFKpadN— Margaret Good (@GoodforFlorida) April 17, 2020
On Friday, Good tweeted out the phone records of a resident who made 281 calls in the past two weeks to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, without success. Kay Mathers, a legislative aide in Good’s office, says she has received calls from dental hygienists and other workers who make up the backbone of the state’s economy. Almost all of them, Mathers says, have never sought help from the government and are doing so now because they have nowhere else to turn.
Good’s voice choked and she had to pause when I asked her Saturday about the struggle residents are encountering.
“It’s shameful,” Good says. “I’m angry that our state government has failed so badly at a time when so many people are facing great need. This has been going on for weeks. We are past the point of giving the benefit of the doubt. We are seeing a complete failure of our state’s executive branch and the consequences of having 22 years of one-party rule in Florida.”
Compounding the problem, Good says, is a lack of communication from the state. She wrote the governor last week offering to have her staff work with the Department of Economic Opportunity to better help residents who are inundating her office with calls. She has yet to get a response.
In the meantime, Good has advised gig workers to apply for benefits under Florida’s current application process, even though the information sought by the state does not reflect their employment. So far, Good says, all the gig workers who have applied with the state that she is aware of have been denied.
Good says the lifeline keeping struggling Sarasotans afloat is charitable efforts, such as Season of Sharing. “Our local foundations stepping up to do everything they can has kept things from being even worse,” she says.
Paige Landrum, press secretary for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, says the state does not have daily online tracking to determine how many Floridians who have lost their jobs in the pandemic have applied for benefits and how many have received them. She pointed me to the state’s last news release, which came out on Thursday.
I also asked Landrum when the state’s hundreds of thousands of gig workers can expect an answer on how they can get benefits that were approved weeks ago by the federal government. “We are working on getting you more information on gig workers and will send that over to you as quickly as we can,” she responded.