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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

When Florida's unemployment system fails, Orlando's elected state representatives take the calls

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2020 at 7:15 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO VIA ANNA V. ESKAMANI
  • Photo via Anna V. Eskamani

Gov. Ron DeSantis claims that Floridians are not receiving their Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) payments due to user error; meanwhile, Florida state representatives have been inundated with calls and emails from citizens hoping to receive help with applying for unemployment and successfully receiving their payments.

We're asking Central Florida's elected state officials to weigh in, as they help constituents navigate through Florida's unprecedented unemployment crisis. Here's what they had to say to Orlando Weekly.

Orange County state Rep. Anna Eskamani

Anna V. Eskamani represents Florida House District 47, which includes downtown Orlando, Winter Park, Edgewood and Belle Isle.

Orange County Rep. Anna Eskamani emphasized that DeSantis blaming users for not receiving their PUA payments is "a complete insult to every Floridian ... who is trying to get their unemployment benefits." She claimed that "since day one, the process has been a mess" because the website continues to not work and information is constantly lost on the website. She argued that there are far too many problems with the website that can be pointed back to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and DeSantis' office.

Eskamani has been met with thousands of calls from Floridians and she has regrettably not been able to keep up with the high demand of people seeking her assistance. Eskamani claims that she has the names of over 5,000 Floridians, not counting those who have sent her tweets and Facebook messages and have joined her virtual town halls, who have correctly filed for unemployment and have yet to receive their payments. These names have all been forwarded to the DEO.
Eskamani emphasized that Floridians "are doing everything right ... and they want to do everything right," but the lack of communication and the fact that the DEO call center does not work, prevents people from receiving help and their payments. Eskamani does not know of any Floridian that her office has been working with that has been paid correctly and even recognized that some have been overpaid.

Although she stated that "Florida's eligibility requirements are very difficult, ... [and that] Florida has designed it to be very difficult" to achieve PUA eligibility status, not many citizens have called her for help and were in fact not eligible. She argued that the DEO has not communicated well the eligibility requirements though.

Eskamani also highlighted how the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which is under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and provides up to 13 weeks of additional unemployment to individuals who previously collected state or federal unemployment compensation but have exhausted those benefits, has caused further stress. PEUC required citizens to reapply in April, and now, not only are people still waiting for their PUA but are also now waiting for their PEUC payments.
click to enlarge PHOTO VIA JOY GOFF-MARCIL
  • Photo via Joy Goff-Marcil

Orange County state Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil

Joy Goff-Marcil represents Florida House District 30, which includes Eatonville, Maitland, Altamonte Springs and Casselberry.

Similarly, Orange County Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil completely disagrees with DeSantis' claim that the reason that Floridians are not receiving their PUA is due to user error. She recognized that even if a user was to make an error, the website does not indicate what the error was.

"If someone did go through the whole process and maybe they did leave off something that was important, there's no indication of what that is and then the person can't get ahold of anybody to figure out what the problem was," Goff-Marcil said.

She also raised concern about the 77 million dollars that was spent on the system to run "a website that does not work." She called it "a terrible system" that a vendor provided and she wonders why this vendor was tasked with the job of creating the website.

Two of Goff-Marcil's staff have been answering phone calls and emails in order to help Floridians who have not received their PUA payments. Assistant Hailey Ahearn, who is in charge of phone calls, clarified that there have been over 200 cases of Floridians waiting to receive their PUA payments that have been escalated to the DEO.

Ahearn stated that although, as a legislative office, there is not much she can do to ensure people receive their payments, the most help the office has been able to provide is communication. She clarified that numerous people that she has spoken with have stated that "after hundreds of calls to the DEO" that she was the first person they have been able to speak to. She also recognized that there has been "immense frustration about how little information is out there and how little transparency is out there."

Goff-Marcil recognized that her office has been able to help the most by simply "actually being there to answer" the phone and send the names of Floridians to the DEO.
  • Photo via Geraldine Thopson/Facebook

Orange County state Rep. Geraldine Thompson

Geraldine F. Thompson represents Florida House District 44, which includes Windermere, Winter Garden, Lake Buena Vista, Oakland, parts of Ocoee, Dr. Phillips and Williamsburg.

Orange County Rep. Geraldine Thompson also very strongly stated that the reason Floridians were not receiving their PUA payments "was not user error." In fact, she was in the legislature in 2011 when the current Florida PUA website was proposed, and she voted against it "because it was intentionally designed to present a deflated number of unemployment in Florida." She also stated that Florida "did not provide people enough to make ends meets" and the website "wasn't designed to be helpful to Floridians." She also stated that since the website was put up in 2011, it has not been updated and she "knew that it was problematic" even back then.

Thompson noted on the fact "that Florida has taken in more money from the federal government from unemployment aid than it sent out." She affirmed that the state "earned 25 million [dollars] in interest on the federal money, while people are waiting throughout the state needing help."

Since March 17, Thompson stated that she has received hundreds of calls from Floridians seeking assistance for payments they have yet to receive. She recognized that there is some fuzziness between eligibility for unemployment benefits between the state and the federal government, and she thinks that the DEO "needs a [press relations] campaign so that people understand" all the requirements.

Thompson pointed toward Bob Scherzinger, who she has tried to help make sure receives his PUA payments. Scherzinger previously filed for unemployment in 2010 and because of this, he has not been able to file a new claim because it redirects him back to the 2010 claim. Despite trying to apply through paper, mobile and even having a DEO representative manually enter all of his information, Scherzinger has been met with no success and has now been waiting seven weeks for his PUA payments.

Scherzinger stated that his account seemed to be missing information and after sending all the missing information to the DEO via email four times while he was on the phone with the DEO representative, he was told that the attachments could not be viewed. On April 26, his status changed to "pending," however, he was later told that his information actually never got entered. On April 30 he called the DEO and a representative offered to manually enter his information, only to get kicked out every time he tried.

"It's been absolutely exhausting to try to figure out why my claim was not here," Scherzinger said. "I'm doing everything I can to make it right for me and hopefully ... right for others because we know this governor is not doing what he needs to be doing in this case."
  • Photo via Carlos Guillermo Smith/Facebook

Orange County state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith

Carlos Guillermo Smith represents Florida House District 49, which includes the Orlando neighborhoods Union Park, Rio Pinar and the University area.

Orange County Rep. Carlos Smith very belatedly stated that "it's a slap in the face to ... hundreds of thousands of Floridians who have been waiting for weeks and weeks and weeks" when DeSantis chooses to blame the user for not receiving their PUA payments. He clearly stated that "the governor and the DEO are squarely responsible for the unemployment disaster."

He recognized that the reason DeSantis blames users is because applications sometimes have missing information, but users are "trying to send the information to the DEO, but they can't ... because the website is broken ... and the [DEO] wont pick up the phone."

Smith has sent 545 names to the DEO, all of whom have yet to receive their PUA payments, but there is just so much representatives can do since they do not have access to the PUA website and cannot view the constituents' applications. He stated that the most they can do is send names to the DEO and read through the frequently asked questions that the DEO website provides regarding Connect.

There has been several issues that Smith has heard from his constituents regarding the PUA website, such as wages being zeroed out as to make people ineligible for benefits, missing information that does not allow the user to complete, being kicked off the website and being stuck on pending for weeks. He pointed toward the numerous people who filed in March and have been stuck in the "pending purgatory," which he sees as "a direct contradiction of the governor's continued assertion that 97 percent or 99.99 percent of eligible filers from March have been paid."

Smith also stated that the governor and the DEO have been denying Floridians "the opportunity to understand how much those folks have been paid." He claimed that the DEO and DeSantis get away with saying that people have been paid, even when they have "given them 20 dollars," when much more money should have been paid.

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