TALLAHASSEE -State officials have taken steps to make it easier for people in areas affected by Hurricane Ian to receive unemployment benefits, as recovery efforts from the massive storm continued Monday and the death toll mounted.
The state, in part, temporarily eliminated what is known as a “waiting week” before unemployment benefits can be paid. Also, it removed a requirement that applicants contact five potential employers a week to keep unemployment benefits flowing.
“There is no need for red tape in a time like this,” Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle said Monday during a briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “I know people personally back home who don’t even have a job to go to. The restaurant at the beach is completely gone.”
The changes apply to people in counties that are under a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declaration. Those counties are Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Flagler, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Orange, Osceola, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns and Volusia counties.
“We are working diligently to get Highlands County and Lake County added to that declaration,” state Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said Monday. “And we continue to have conversations with the federal agency regarding Monroe County.”
The briefing came as the state said confirmed deaths stood at 58 from the Category 4 hurricane, which swept across the state after making landfall in Lee and Charlotte counties Wednesday. News reports, however, have put the number of deaths higher.
Meanwhile, more than 43,000 utility workers remained in the field restoring electricity after it was knocked out across a large swath of the state. Crews had restored power to more than 2 million residences, while another 621,000 remained in the dark, according to the state Division of Emergency Management.
Guthrie said the goal is to have power back by Sunday to properties where “infrastructure is still standing.”
Guthrie also said Monday that search-and-rescue operations were moving into a more-thorough secondary phase.
“We are somewhat fairly confident that we have had people check every address,” Guthrie said. “We’ve been to just about every address at least once and now the CFO’s office (state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ office) with his (urban search and rescue) teams are going back and doing a second look at every single location.”
The federal disaster declaration, in part, enabled people who sustained damage in the storm to seek individual assistance through FEMA. More than 164,000 people, up from 119,000 on Sunday, had applied for the assistance, Guthrie said Monday.
Eagle, a former Florida House member who also worked as a commercial real-estate broker in Lee County, said the state had not seen an uptick in unemployment applications.
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By Jim Turner