Millions of Floridians currently relying on aid to buy basic groceries during the pandemic-induced recession are poised to see the return of several requirements that could limit their access to the critical food assistance.
Beginning Tuesday, several waivers of these requirement that have been in place amid the coronavirus pandemic for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — once known as food stamps — are set to expire.
Among those about to lapse includes the state’s waiver of job search requirements as a condition for receiving money for food, as well as a federal waiver that delayed the need for recipients to reapply to continue to get aid.
In addition, a provision that allows all SNAP recipients to get the maximum amount in assistance based on their household size is also slated to expire. That means some recipients could see a sudden drop in monthly aid unless Florida asks for and gets a continuation of a waiver from the federal government.
The Florida Department of Children and Families, which administers the federal program in the state, has not responded to repeated inquiries over the last week about whether the waivers will be extended. Spokeswoman Aly Coleman said the department is “working to get accurate responses.”
Advocates say now is not the time to reimpose requirements that could limit access to food amid an ongoing pandemic and recession. The economy is far from recovered. The state’s unemployment rate dipped downward in June before ticking up again somewhat in July and surpassing the national unemployment rate.
Some of the other pandemic safety nets for Floridians are also in flux.
Hours before Florida’s modified moratorium on evictions and foreclosures was set to expire, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday evening issued an executive order extending it for another month.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has waived Florida’s strict unemployment work search rules, which require recipients to provide the names of five employers each week in order to receive state and federal benefits. Those requirements are set to resume Sunday, although DeSantis hinted last week that he will waive them again.
Such last-minute decisions and announcements create undue uncertainty and stress for people already in tenuous situations, said Cindy Huddleston, senior policy analyst and attorney with the nonprofit research organization Florida Policy Institute.
“Transparency is a huge problem right now,” she said. “People need to know in advance what is going to happen to them.”
Experts say that bringing back the SNAP work requirements and removing other waivers could affect the number of people participating.
Red tape surrounding work and reapplication rules have historically forced some potentially eligible SNAP participants out of the food assistance program, Huddleston said. Advocates worry that would be compounded by the state’s economic issues and the continuing pandemic.
In general, so-called “able-bodied” adults under the age of 50 must document that they’re spending 80 hours a month working, looking for work or taking job skills training so that they can get food assistance. For a family of four, the maximum monthly benefit is $646. There are a number of situations where a recipient doesn’t need to meet those requirements, such as if they have dependents, are pregnant or care for an incapacitated individual.
Florida had waived the work requirements in recent months, but then began quietly phasing them back in in July. But following questions and pleas from legislators and others, DeSantis in late July directed the Department of Children and Families to postpone reinstating the requirements through August.
Meanwhile, the federal government has recently signaled that it wants to again require recipients to reapply for aid. That requirement had been waived to ensure no disruptions in service amid the pandemic.
Federal SNAP director Gene Malveaux wrote in July that states should “make arrangements to ensure they are able to return to their new normal by Sept. 1, 2020.”
Federal officials have since offered states some options to simplify how people can reapply, said Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It’s unclear if Florida has requested any sort of waiver for recertifying whether recipients are eligible.
Bolen said states should still be able to secure waivers allowing them to give every SNAP recipient the maximum allotment based on their household size. It is not yet clear if Florida has requested an extension of that waiver.
“The state should be telling people the right thing and quite clearly,” Bolen said.
As of July, more than 3.8 million Floridians were enrolled in SNAP, according to state data. That’s an increase of nearly 1.2 million people compared to March, and it’s about 18 percent of the state’s total population.
In Hillsborough County, the 280,936 SNAP recipients in July was a 38 percent jump from the number of recipients in March. Pinellas County saw a similar jump in that time frame, with nearly 135,000 recipients enrolled in July, according to state data.
Some SNAP recipients have reported confusion and mixed messaging from the state regarding what waivers are in place for the SNAP program. Some have reported being told in July that they needed to reapply in order to continue to receive the benefit.
Shawn Hadden of Fort Lauderdale said he lost his job in March as a reservation supervisor for three hotels as the pandemic walloped the tourism business.
He signed up quickly for SNAP and started receiving $194 a month, the maximum benefit available for single-person households. The money was much-needed help, particularly since Hadden had been diagnosed with diabetes only weeks before and was working to eat healthier.
In July, Hadden said he got a notification that he would need to reapply for SNAP so his benefits wouldn’t run out at the end of the month. He did so, saying he entered the same information as he had the last time. He was told his benefit was dropping to $60 a month.
Hadden said that, for August, he did end up receiving the full $194, but shared a screenshot showing that his benefits for September are listed at $60.
It’s just not enough, he said.
“I have to use money I’d pay for rent to pay for food,” Hadden said.
“I’m biting my fingernails figuring out which bills to pay,” he said.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Emily Mahoney and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.