It was billed as prompt unemployment relief after Hurricane Irma, but a state-run system delivered payments on fewer than 30 percent of applications from eligible Palm Beach County workers after nearly half a year, records requested by The Palm Beach Post show.
With the business end of another storm season approaching, officials in Gov. Rick Scott’s administration defended “above and beyond” efforts after Irma.
But worker advocates say Florida botched unemployment relief and let down people who really could have used the income they lost for days, weeks or longer because a natural disaster prevented their businesses from reopening quickly. They say the state’s online application system for unemployment benefits is so hard to navigate that many applicants gave up or wrongly concluded they did not qualify. The result, they claim, is the lowest statewide payment rate for jobless benefits after a major Florida storm in three decades.
“For workers in Palm Beach County and across the state, Scott’s performance was the worst of any Florida governor in 30 years in helping jobless hurricane victims,” said Paul Sonn, director of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.
Statewide, 53 percent of eligible applicants received a form of aid called disaster unemployment assistance, or DUA, by early May, said officials from the state agency handling the claims, the Department of Economic Opportunity.
New York-based NELP cited government records showing a 90 percent payment rate after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, for example.
Scott “may be touring the state touting his record after Irma” but he was “missing in action” on this issue, Sonn said.
A spokesman for Scott rejected that portrayal and expressed support for the DEO.
“DEO went above and beyond to ensure that Floridians who qualify for unemployment assistance got it before, during and after Hurricane Irma,” Scott spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said. “Any person who needs assistance with their DUA claims can call 1-800-204-2418.”
Efforts to help workers included extending application deadlines, expanding call-center hours, posting a “how-to” video on the website to assist with applications and relaxing certain work-search and registration requirements for September, officials said.
Gambineri declined to respond to a question on whether the governor saw a need for any changes or improvements in the system.
Disaster unemployment assistance, federal money administered by the state, is designed to provide relief for people who cannot work after a major storm. Irma caused widespread power outages, evacuations, more than $9 billion in damage to homes and businesses and massive transportation tangles.
The flap over disaster-related jobless aid comes after friction in past years over changes to the regular unemployment system in Florida.
Early in his first term, Scott’s administration oversaw reductions in the amount and duration of standard unemployment benefits, spurring complaints from applicants that the state’s online system was very difficult to use.
The governor placed a strong focus on helping private employers create jobs, his signature emphasis, and the need for jobless benefits fell as Florida’s unemployment rate dropped. Now it’s below 4 percent.
But the political context became a bit more complicated after Florida’s worst storm in more than a decade.
Scott vowed Sept. 20, in Irma’s aftermath, to “help Floridians get back on their feet” in a statement citing programs including disaster unemployment assistance.
Scott also said after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 that his administration was ready to make sure workers got this kind of unemployment help.
“We are committed to helping these communities fully recover from this devastating storm, and helping Floridians get back to work is one of the most important ways to do so,” Scott said then.
“Disaster unemployment assistance will provide necessary resources for individuals and families” in affected counties, he said.
Yet the clear majority of more than 2,100 applications in Palm Beach County after Irma appeared to produce no payment by March 1, whether for direct disaster unemployment assistance or what state officials called “related” jobless help.
Were state officials moving cautiously to guard against fraud? There were no fraud referrals, a Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman told The Post.
Among 2,139 applications in Palm Beach County, 509 claims had been paid by March 1, DOE officials said.
Among the remainder, about 16 percent of applications were from workers deemed ineligible, records show.
So paid claims represented fewer than one in four total applications, and about 27 percent of applications not declared ineligible.
As a group, Palm Beach County applicants received $469,299 in direct DUA benefits, part of about $8.6 million statewide,.
So what happened to the folks in Palm Beach County who were not ruled ineligible but did not get benefits? Most did not complete the steps necessary to complete a claim, withdrew their claim or did not file for one form of disaster-related jobless aid after being ruled ineligible for another, DOE officials said.
One frustrated applicant in the county, who asked not to be identified by name, said it is little wonder most people just gave up, because the system is so difficult to use.
“I saw first-hand how the Scott administration botched relief for people who’d lost their livelihood because of Irma,” said Jennifer Hill, a Miami-based legal advocate whose statement was included in a release by the National Employment Law Project. “Hurricane victims couldn’t find out how to apply for unemployment insurance online, and back-up phone lines were either shut down or transferred callers out of state to people who couldn’t help them. There’s no question that the Scott administration failed tens of thousands of working Floridians.”
A little more than 7,200 Floridians were able to file a completed DUA claim after Irma, compared to more than 26,000 in Texas after Hurricane Harvey in the same year, NELP officials said. Yet Florida had more than 4 million workers affected, about twice the number affected by Harvey in Texas, according to federal estimates.
Florida’s Department of Economic Opporunity went to great lengths to “ensure that families impacted by Hurricane Irma were treated fairly and received the assistance they deserved,” said Karen Smith, the agency’s press secretary. “This includes extending the deadline for DUA twice while aggressively advertising this assistance and providing dedicated resources to Floridians who were applying for DUA.”
Smith made a distinction between what she called “straight” DUA and “related” unemployment assistance.
Straight DUA “is available to Florida residents whose employment or self-employment was lost or interrupted as a result of Hurricane Irma,” she said. “This benefit covers Floridians who would not typically be eligible for regular Reemployment Assistance benefits, i.e. individuals who are self-employed or someone who was getting ready to start a job but was unable to because of the storm.”
She defined “related” assistance as that available for Florida residents who are eligible for regular Reemployment Assistance benefits, but whose employment was lost or interrupted as a result of Hurricane Irma.
Some 35,385 claims for “related” assistance were filed statewide as of March 21, she said.
Still, only a limited number of applicants for “related” jobless aid received payments — 22 percent, according to agency responses. Smith said 29 percent were deemed ineligible at the time of application, 48 percent failed to complete the process and 1 percent withdrew their claim or were awaiting a resolution.
By early November, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, an incumbent Florida Democrat facing Republican Scott in a bellwether national race this fall, appealed to U.S. Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta for help in a letter discussing problems in the program.
“I’ve heard multiple accounts of Floridians facing difficulties when trying to apply for DUA,” Nelson wrote. “They are getting kicked out of the online application system because they are not eligible for traditional unemployment insurance, despite being eligible for DUA. When they call a representative for help, it can take hours on the phone to properly complete the application.”
Administration officials say critics are missing the big picture.
“In September 2017, Florida lost nearly 170,000 jobs due to Hurricane Irma, but regained these jobs plus more a month later,” a DEO statement said. “What NELP doesn’t want to mention is that thanks to Florida’s booming economy and our state’s robust response to Hurricane Irma, Florida was able to recover quickly – meaning more families getting back to work faster and not needing to file for reemployment assistance.”
But something is really wrong if thousands of eligible workers cannot get benefits specifically designed to help them after a disaster, NELP officials said.
“For weeks after Irma, the Scott Administration’s online claims system failed to list DUA as an option, and its back-up phone lines often were shut down, left callers on hold, or transferred calls to out-of-state agents who couldn’t file claims,” a statement from the group said in April. “The administration’s promises to fix the system never materialized.”