TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A Tampa man he’s been forced to live out of the back of his car because of continued, inexplicable delays with his unemployment benefits.
Julius Johnson, a trained chef, lost his restaurant job in March when the pandemic first shuttered businesses. He applied for unemployment for the first time ever, he says, and received benefits for a few weeks.
He managed to land another job briefly in June cooking for another restaurant, but it only lasted two weeks as a spike in COVID cases led to another round of restrictions and layoffs.
“I had to get out of my place, and I stayed in a motel for a few weeks,” he said. “But then I had to get out because I had no money.”
Johnson believes it was filing for unemployment again that completely upended his claim. Every time he would claim his weeks, the CONNECT site would show his payments on hold.
When he eventually got through to Department of Economic Opportunity agents, they explained to him that their system still showed him back at work, preventing his benefits from being released.
Once they identified the problem, they told Johnson it would take seven to 10 days to void the issue and release his benefits.
That was in June. Johnson says he now has more than $4,000 in benefits waiting on hold.
“It’s very stressful,” he said. “I hope the jobs start opening back up. I’d take anything at this point.”
New numbers released Friday show jobs are returning to Florida’s economy. Nearly 58,000 were added in August, but nearly half a million remain eliminated since the start of the pandemic. More than half of those are in the hospitality sector.
“I’m glad some of the restaurants and bars are opening back up full capacity,” Johnson said. “But it’s hard out there, very hard.”
With no money, Johnson is left with no choice but to sleep in his car and occasionally seek refuge at a friend’s house. He says he spends most of his time in parks, parked in a shady spot, scrolling through job postings on his phone.
He’s discouraged but remains determined, continuing to apply for jobs. He had been at an interview for another restaurant position before meeting up with 8 On Your Side Friday.
“As long as I can get back to work, y’all can keep the unemployment,” he said.
8 On Your Side has reached out to the Department of Economic Opportunity on Johnson’s behalf. A spokesperson tells us they are looking into the issue.