A month after Hurricane Irma pounded Florida, people who cannot work are applying for temporary disaster unemployment relief from the state.
But some lawmakers wonder if people even know the program exists because the number of applicants is so low.
So far, according to the state, 27,500 people have filed claims, with more than a third of them living in the Keys, Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Collier and Lee counties, where Irma made her second landfall after the Keys, are not far behind.
The application deadline was set to expire on Monday, but the state extended it to Oct. 31.
Eligible residents, including people who are self-employed, can receive up to $275 a week for a maximum of 26 weeks through next March.
And the clock is already ticking.
The 26 week period began after Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in 48 counties.
That was on Labor Day, Sept. 4, more than five weeks ago.
But claims are trickling in from across the Tampa Bay region.
About 1,500 Pinellas County residents have applied for disaster assistance, about 1,000 in larger Hillsborough, and fewer than 500 in Pasco, according to the state.
Hurricane Irma triggered the largest evacuation in U.S. history of about 6.5 million, or nearly a third of Florida’s population of nearly 21 million.
The federally-funded Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program is administered by the state Department of Economic Opportunity.
Calls to DEO’s disaster relief hotline on Tuesday were transferred to the state of Louisiana Workforce Commission “in an effort to better serve you,” a recorded message said.
Scott’s DEO secretary, Cissy Proctor, said Floridians are eligible for disaster unemployment assistance “if your employment was interrupted, or you were permanently unable to get back to your job because of the storm.”
Proctor said eligibility rules are “a lot less restrictive” than for traditional jobless benefits.
“We know that in a time of emergency, we want to get employees across the state the assistance they need until they can go back to work,” Proctor said.
Legislators from two large, hard-hit counties said many more people would apply for help, but they don’t know the program even exists.
Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, was incredulous that fewer than 3,000 residents of Broward County lost their ability to work because of Irma.
“It should be a lot more than that,” Thurston said. “People don’t know what’s out there. But it’s our responsibility to make sure they know about it.”
Jacksonville’s Duval County, which experienced historic flooding from Irma, had 783 applicants for disaster jobless assistance as of Monday.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said she was not aware the program existed until Proctor described it at a Senate committee meeting Monday.
“Was there an email sent out about that?” Gibson asked. “Could I have that information so I can e-blast it out?”
Gibson said a disaster food assistance program was promoted more aggressively and that she circulated email blasts and flyers in her district to let storm-ravaged residents know how to apply for food stamps.
She said emergency unemployment help is needed, too.
“I had heard that people were being let go or fired because of the storm, and they couldn’t get to work,” Gibson said.
Proctor said information about eligibility for disaster unemployment assistance is on DEO’s web site, floridajobs.org, and that the agency would steer more information to legislators.
Key counties where Floridians without work because of Hurricane Irma have filed for disaster unemployment assistance:
Source: Florida Department of Economic Opportunity
HOW TO APPLY
To file a DUA claim go to floridajobs.org or call 800-385-3920, weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. For DUA claims information, call 800-204-2418 and choose option 2 to speak to a customer service representative.