TALLAHASSEE — Tim Hubbard of Palm Harbor mailed Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity a letter on April 12 with a simple request.
“I would like to cancel my request for unemployment benefits as I filed a request in error and I am currently employed full time,” Hubbard wrote.
But for more than a month after he sent that letter, Hubbard continued to receive benefits. In total, he’s received $4,320 in state and federal unemployment — likely thousands of dollars too much, considering he was only out of work from his landscaping business for, at most, a few weeks between March and April.
Now, Hubbard faces a struggle that has become familiar to thousands of Floridians. He can’t reach anyone at the Department of Economic Opportunity who will answer his questions. His business, Hubbard’s Landscaping, also qualified for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program after Hubbard applied for unemployment. Hubbard may not be legally eligible for a paycheck loan and unemployment at the same time.
“I don’t know that I’m even entitled to the money to begin with because nobody will answer my questions,” Hubbard said.
Only after he made dozens of phone calls to the department’s hotline, none of which were returned, did he write a letter.
Florida officials say those who fear they’ve been overpaid should hold on to the money for the time being. If the state finds that the money is an overpayment, officials will eventually send for the money in the form of a “Notice of Determination,” said Paige Landrum, a department spokeswoman, in an email.
Accidental overpayments from the state are one thing. Florida officials also have to grapple with — and in many cases, collect payments from — people who’ve committed unemployment fraud. Last month, the U.S. Secret Service wrote in a memo that it believed a sophisticated Nigerian fraud ring was working to bilk several states, including Florida, out of millions in unemployment.
Given that chaotic environment — and the Department of Economic Opportunity’s faltering response to the surge in demand for benefits — it’s unclear how aggressive Florida will be in trying to collect payments from people.
In the past, state leaders have taken fraud seriously. Between 2014 and 2016, a special unit in the Department of Economic Opportunity stopped $603 million in fraudulent payments, the department said at the time.
But in 2014, Florida also reportedly settled a whistleblower lawsuit with an employee who alleged the state was trying to collect overpayments from people who were, in some cases, dead or bankrupt. (The lawsuit was briefly a campaign talking point during the race for governor between Democrat Charlie Crist, now a congressman, and Republican Rick Scott, who now serves in the U.S Senate.)
While the state sorts out its overpayments, residents are left to wonder what they might owe.
Nancy Schulman, a substitute teacher in Largo, had to wait six weeks before the state started paying her unemployment. Then, on May 25, she got a check for $1,080 without explanation. That’s nearly twice the $600 in federal benefits she’d been getting every week.
It’s possible the amount could have represented a legitimate payment. Perhaps the check was for two federal payments with taxes taken out. But Schulman doesn’t know for sure.
“I hesitate to deposit this check in case it was made out in error,” Schulman wrote the Department of Economic Opportunity in a letter dated June 1.
Schulman has yet to get a response.
“I’m certainly not in a hurry to give it back to them,” Schulman said. “They weren’t in a hurry to give it to me.”