TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — As COVID-19 cases in Florida continue to spike, the number of first-time unemployment claims in Florida is creeping up as well after previously leveling off in June.
Total first-time claims in the Sunshine State were 93,394 last week, up from the prior week’s revised total of 88,148.
This comes as the surge of COVID-19 cases forced some recently re-opened businesses, bars in particular, to close their doors once again.
But there are still out-of-work Floridians who filed months ago still fighting to get paid. That includes Mary O’Toole, a St. Petersburg project manager.
Since getting laid off in early April, O’Toole has had some leads on new jobs in places like Miami, Orlando, and Jacksonville. But with credit cards maxed out and just $15 to her name, she says she couldn’t afford to get there.
She’s one of the thousands of Floridians who should qualify for unemployment benefits but to date has not received a cent.
“You’re keeping us in the system by not paying us!” she told 8 On Your Side over the phone, audibly frustrated.
O’Toole says the CONNECT site shows her unemployment claim locked because the Department of Economic Opportunity can’t verify her identity. This, even though she says she’s submitted her driver’s license and social security card to the DEO as instructed at least 15 times. Countless calls to the DEO have proven futile.
“There’s nothing they can do,” O’Toole said. “We’re sorry you’re inconvenienced, please be patient with us, we’re working on it. Okay, tell that to my creditors. Tell that to my car payment.”
The issue with ID verification is one of several barriers to benefits 8 On Your Side has documented in recent months that appear to remain unresolved.
Florida’s reemployment dashboard showed 100 percent of eligible applicants paid on Wednesday. Anecdotally, 8 On Your Side knows many of those people have not been paid in full. At least another 187,000, including O’Toole, are shown waiting in various verification queues.
Others have struggled to request payments or submit applications altogether due to mysterious system errors.
With Florida facing 14.5% unemployment as of May (June data not available yet from the US DOL) experts say a healthy, functioning unemployment system will play a key role in the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus.
Balaji Padmanabhan, a professor at the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business, explained that unemployment benefits go to paying rent, food, and other day-to-day expenses that are quickly injected into the economy. If benefits are delayed, any sort of growth can be delayed as well.
“It’s money that’s spent right back into the economy,” Padmanabhan said. “It goes into the pockets of small businesses in the state that also need the money to recover.”
In extreme cases, Florida’s unemployment issues are driving some of the workforce from the Sunshine State altogether.
Mary O’Toole found a new job in Georgia, after borrowing enough money to get there. But financially, and emotionally, says it will take her years to heal.
“They’re ruining peoples’ lives and nobody seems to care,” she said. “Somebody needs to be held accountable for this.”
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