Saturday, July 21, 2018
Business

DEO mum on status of payments to thousands of unemployed Floridians

Like many Florida workers with overdue unemployment claims, Jayne Evans thought relief was on the way when state officials announced Jan. 18 that they would immediately pay claims held up because of problems with a new $63 million website.

"This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system," said Jesse Panuccio, who oversees the CONNECT website as executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity.

But more than a week later, Evans, a former marketing director of a nonprofit, has yet to receive her $2,200 in late claims.

"I haven't gotten an email or a letter or any acknowledgement from anyone," said Evans, a Jacksonville area resident who has waited since October for her claims, which were confirmed by an appeals board. "They certainly have enough paperwork on me, so they know who I am."

If the DEO knows, it isn't saying. How many of the overdue claims have been paid, and for how much? How many have been denied, and why? Have any been paid?

DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims issued this boilerplate answer: "In a continued effort to serve all claimants, on Saturday, January 18, DEO directed (project vendor) Deloitte to immediately program the system to pay all continued claims. … This measure was discussed and agreed upon."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office released a statement that recounted a conversation between U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Nelson on Friday.

"Secretary Perez told me Friday that his staff has advised the state's Department of Economic Opportunity to pay some 11,000 claimants who have not been receiving their checks. He also told me the state has been asked to re-evaluate about 10,000 claims that were denied."

Nelson got federal officials to come to Florida because of widespread reports that thousands of workers couldn't collect their payments because of problems with the website.

What's confusing is that the actual number of backlogged cases — those held up for longer than a week — is 60,000, according to testimony Panuccio gave senators earlier this month.

If that's true, the DEO has talked about only 21,000 cases, so what about the other 39,000? And why were 10,000 claims denied? Did the U.S. Department of Labor disagree with the denials, as suggested by Nelson's statement that the feds are asking the state to "re-evaluate" those denials?

Perhaps most crucial for those recipients who have waited this long is the language used in Panuccio's Jan. 18 announcement that promised payment "immediately."

"The U.S. Department of Labor today advised that Florida could immediately pay continuing claims held in adjudication for more than seven days. Accordingly, DEO has directed Deloitte to immediately program the system to pay all claimants in adjudication who have been waiting longer than one week."

So federal officials advised the DEO that it "could immediately pay continuing claims," but did it decide not to?

Things are already tense between Gov. Rick Scott's administration and the U.S. Department of Labor. The feds finance Florida's unemployment compensation system and threatened to revoke that funding or deliver some other punitive measures when it objected last spring to barriers the state has placed between recipients and unemployment reinsurance by requiring online claims.

When will claimants such as Evans get paid?

"I know that they know that I'm eligible," Evans said. "So I'm just waiting now."

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