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Report: Unemployment assistance in Florida lagged after Hurricane Irma

According to the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, just 7,149 workers were able to apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance following - the lowest in the state since 2004 when 8,309 workers applied following Hurricane Ivan. Pictured are people applying for aid after Hurricane Irma in Plant City. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times, 2017]
Published Apr. 18, 2018

Note: This story has been updated with a response from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

In the days and weeks following Hurricane Irma, Gov. Rick Scott touted his administration's preparation and response to one of the worst storms to hit Florida in a decade. But one area that appears to have fallen through the cracks, a new study says, is connecting Floridians to assistance through a federal program that helps independent workers, employees and small businesses after natural disasters.

According to the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, just 7,149 workers were able to apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance in Florida — the lowest in the state since 2004 when 8,309 workers applied following Hurricane Ivan. Disaster Unemployment Assistance data is collected by the U.S. Department of Labor.

"The numbers really speak for themselves," Paul Sonn, director of the NELP Action Fund, said. "(They) show an inability of government to deliver — at a crucial time — the assistance that the voters and workers in the state needed."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: After Irma, the hard part begins for Florida, Tampa Bay

Disaster Unemployment Assistance helps workers who become unemployed because of a natural disaster immediately after the disaster. Eligible applicants receive money that can help pay for things like rent and bills. It does not have the week-long waiting period that accompanies traditional unemployment assistance. The program is often most beneficial to small business owners, independent contractors and those with low income.

The only other major storm with a smaller number of Florida applicants was Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 with 5,087 applicants. NELP considers Jeanne a "statistical anomaly" because it was the fourth storm of the season in 2004, and many Floridians already applied for such assistance during the prior three.

Of those who were able to apply for benefits in Florida after Hurricane Irma, according to Department of Labor figures, just a third of those determined to be eligible actually received the benefits — 2,434.

By comparison, 26,326 workers in Texas applied for benefits after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Of the 19,650 who were determined eligible, 8,492 received benefits.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees jobless claims, recorded a drastically different number of applications — 42,000.

"DEO went above and beyond to ensure that families impacted by Hurricane Irma were treated fairly and got the assistance that they deserved," Tiffany Vause, spokesperson for DEO, said.

It's possible the discrepancy in the numbers exists, NELP said, because other unemployment assistance applications following the hurricane are being combined into the figure. The DEO is looking into the issue.

NELP and other advocates attribute the smaller number of applications to the state's poor advertising of the program and technical issues with the application process following Hurricane Irma.

Jennifer Hill, a lawyer in Miami, worked with several community clinics to help workers apply for disaster assistance after the storm.

Issues plagued the process during her time at the clinics, Hill said. The application portal initially was not listed on state websites, glitches kicked applicants out of the system and help lines either did not pick up or had wait times of at least 45 minutes.

"Every aspect of the application process was unclear inefficient and seemingly unplanned," she said.

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But the DEO said it took several steps to help those affected after the storm, including extending the deadline to apply for disaster assistance, longer call center hours including weekends, wiping out work requirements for September, establishing a specific contact line for disaster assistance, putting up a how-to video on its website for disaster assistance and having a representative fill out applications for claimants on the phone.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Data, payouts in Florida from the program were also among the lowest in more than a decade. The average weekly benefit amounted to $138.62 following Hurricane Irma. That's just above payouts following Hurricane Charley in 2004, and slightly higher than payouts following Hurricane Frances in the same year — $136.65.

Contact this reporter at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.

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