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Florida lags in paying pandemic unemployment assistance to the self-employed

States with smaller populations have paid out more of the federal aid created to help gig workers, independent contractors and the self-employed.

Rich Brown went into a Publix recently thinking he had $13.80 left in government food assistance. At checkout, the cashier delivered bad news: The card had zero balance.

With no other money, Brown pulled the items from the bag. The box of chicken wings went back to the deli counter. He remembers how good they smelled.

“It was so humiliating,” said the 40-year-old Clermont resident who hasn’t worked since March.

As an independent contractor, Brown is eligible to collect $600 a week in emergency federal assistance. But Florida has struggled to get the benefit to independent contractors and self-employed workers, running far behind many other states. It took weeks for Florida to set up a separate system to distribute the federal money, and even now applicants say the process is difficult to navigate and frustratingly byzantine.

Related: Gig workers have changed Florida's workforce. The coronavirus response is starting to reflect that.

Brown and other independent contractors who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times said they first had to apply for state benefits, even though independent contractors aren’t eligible. Only when the state officially declares them ineligible will the website let them apply for the federal benefits, they said.

Two months after first applying, Brown is still waiting. He worries about falling behind on child support, which could get him in legal trouble.

“It won’t take much for me to be living on the street or in jail,” Brown said.

As the coronavirus shut down the economy, Congress issued a financial relief package that allowed laid-off and furloughed employees to collect state benefits, plus an extra $600 a week in federal assistance. Florida offers a maximum of $275 a week, so laid-off workers could collect up to $875 a week.

But independent contractors and the self-employed don’t pay into the unemployment trust fund, so they can’t get state benefits.

It’s not a small group: Independent contractors made up about 6.7 percent of the U.S. labor force, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said in 2017. In Florida, about 1.16 million people are self-employed, out of a labor force of about 10 million, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey results for 2018, the most current available year. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area has almost 158,000 self-employed people, or about 10 percent of the area’s labor force.

For them, Congress set up the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides $600 a week if coronavirus adversely affected their livelihoods. Each state administers the federal benefits.

Florida’s unemployment system buckled early on. The state has had a hard time delivering regular unemployment benefits, let alone the new federal ones. At first, the system known as CONNECT could not process claims from people who weren’t eligible for state benefits. Eventually, the state updated the system, including creating a portal for independent contractors and self-employed workers.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity announced that applications were open for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program on April 25. By then, 21 other states were already processing applications, according to the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. Of the others, 17 began or planned to begin processing applications for the aid later than Florida, and 11 had no information available to the Brookings researchers.

Steve Hamilton, who made his living setting up kiosks that sold newspapers including the Tampa Bay Times, has tried to apply since late March. It took several days and numerous tries before the website allowed him to enter his information. He knew he wasn’t eligible for state benefits and found it strange that he had to get rejected before he could apply for the federal payments.

Related: Floridians deemed ineligible for unemployment should reapply, state says

Hamilton called the helpline but it was obvious he knew more about the program than the “very nice guy” who was supposed to be the expert. The man wasn’t trained, Hamilton said, and couldn’t answer his questions.

“The state couldn’t have set up a system that was more frustrating,” he said.

Hamilton also signed up his wife, a massage therapist. Her state claim was finally rejected earlier this month, and the button appeared on the website that allowed him to sign her up for federal benefits.

The state still lists his claim as under review. He wondered what there’s to review — he clicked the box that said he was self-employed, which he thinks should have rendered him ineligible immediately.

“I’ve never wanted to be rejected for something so badly,” said the 69-year-old Sun City Center resident. “The one time when the government needs to get money out quickly and it can’t do it. It’s an utter failure.”

Florida has the third-largest population behind California and Texas, but state and federal records show that smaller states have received more claims and paid out more.

Through Tuesday, the state had paid $30.3 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits to 62,780 Floridians. Maryland has less than one-third of Florida’s population but had paid out $165 million, Colorado paid out nearly $102 million, New Jersey almost $79 million and Louisiana $37.5 million.

Florida officials have not said how many residents have applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, though it said a total of 97,681 have been deemed eligible. The state Department of Economic Opportunity did not answer written questions the Times submitted last week and again this week.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has acknowledged that the unemployment system set up in 2013 hasn’t worked well. On Friday, he controversially said that some of the people waiting for money had themselves to blame for improperly filling out applications. He was speaking about the system as a whole, not just the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Justin Tranchita, who owns the Clearwater Tourism Center, a marketing firm on Clearwater Beach, said he wouldn’t have thought of applying if Congress hadn’t made unemployment available for the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers.

“I don’t like to take money from the government if I absolutely don’t have to,” said Tranchita, 38, whose career has included recording a country-western anthem, This is America, that Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson used in his 2016 campaign.

Justin Tranchita [Justin Tranchita]

The state Department of Economic Opportunity’s website was “so broken” that it took about two weeks to apply, he said. The claim was denied, which Tranchita said he expected, and he said the state then put out mixed messages about what to do next: nothing, appeal, reapply or apply using a different system.

“They just made it so confusing,” said Tranchita, who finally received his first payment last week. “I’m not some big conspiracy theorist, but it gets to the point we’re almost three months into this thing (and) they’ve done nothing to help any of the self-employed who are the backbone of this state and country.”

Related: Lawyers take aim at Florida's broken unemployment system with two class-action lawsuits

Self-employed marketing consultant Bruce Benidt said not only has he not received federal help, he doesn’t even know “if I’m in line for it.”

Bruce Benidt [Bruce Benidt]

He recently got a confirmation number from the Department of Economic Opportunity, almost two weeks after his application was accepted. But the 69-year-old Port Richey resident said the state’s unemployment website indicated that there were unspecified issues with his application regarding his income and identity. He’s been unable to find out how to proceed.

For now, some clients still owe him money, and he’s not suffering yet. He feels for people who don’t have any savings.

“It just seems like there’s no accountability,” he said.

• • •

Unemployment benefits: More information

For more information about receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in Florida, click here. For information about state unemployment benefits in general, click here.

• • •

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