State denies 40% of unemployment claims, including those who may qualify for federal assistance

Coronavirus

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — It was the last thing they expected.

After waiting weeks for benefits, thousands of out-of-work Floridians found out Monday their unemployment claims had been denied.

This comes after the state took its unemployment site offline this weekend in order to process more claims. Which it did. But when it did, it denied a whole lot of people with no explanation.

That includes Keanan Bender, who was laid off from her job as the manager of Largo custom apparel shop The Teehive in mid-March due to COVID-19.

After six weeks of checking her claim every single day, Bender saw the offline site as a sign of hope.

“I thought great! Maybe they will finally approve my claim,” she explained. “And then I logged in this morning and it said ineligible.”

As far as Bender could tell, she qualified for state benefits. She worked at The Teehive for a year, says she made enough in wages, and that her employer paid into the system.

When she logged on Monday to find her claim denied, there was no explanation. She says she could not access the notice of determination without the site kicking her off.

8 On Your Side found out a whopping 40 percent of Floridians seeking unemployment have been denied.

We asked the Department of Economic Opportunity what happened, and if there was a possible glitch in the system.

A spokesperson for DEO stood by the determination, citing “numerous reasons” why someone could be deemed ineligible for state benefits.

However, from what we could tell Bender still fit all the criteria, especially as Governor Ron DeSantis has waived some of the claim criteria in response to the COVID19 crisis.

So we took Bender’s situation to Tom DiFiore, an attorney with Bay Area Legal Services who handles a lot of unemployment cases.

Based on what we told him, DiFiore doesn’t understand why Bender shouldn’t qualify for at least some state benefits.

“If you worked somewhere between 10-20 hours a week for the last ten months, pretty good chance you’re going to be eligible,” he said. “If those people ar being denied, that would be shocking to me.”

Bender and others in her position can appeal the determination within 20 days, but understandably, she doesn’t have a lot of faith in the system.

“I don’t know who would be on the other side to receive the appeal if I can’t contact anybody,” she said.

There are a lot of people who qualify for federal COVID-19 unemployment benefits, such as independent contractors and gig workers, but not state benefits. It’s likely many of the people included in Monday’s wave of denials fall into that category.

The problem is that as of now, the state is still setting up the system to connect people who don’t qualify for state benefits with federal funds.

DEO tells 8 On Your Side it hopes to have the form for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program available on its CONNECT site at some point this week.

Those struggling with evictions and other legal issues due to not being able to receive unemployment can contact Bay Area Legal Services for help at 1-800-625-2257. Services are free for those who financially qualify.

Contact reporter Victoria Price at vprice@wfla.com.

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