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Unemployment claims spike for Florida school districts. No one knows why.

Despite the pandemic, schools haven’t had major layoffs, so it’s a mystery and a huge unexpected expense. Districts plan to contest many claims.
Despite being forced to hold classes online in the spring, Florida schools did not resort to layoffs. Even bus drivers were paid. Still, many districts are receiving huge unemployment claims from the state and they haven't been able to find out why.
Despite being forced to hold classes online in the spring, Florida schools did not resort to layoffs. Even bus drivers were paid. Still, many districts are receiving huge unemployment claims from the state and they haven't been able to find out why. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 31, 2020

When Florida schools closed in March, district leaders quickly announced they’d protect jobs — even if the positions had little to do during the coronavirus-fueled transition to remote classes.

They didn’t have mass layoffs. They didn’t impose major furloughs.

Paychecks went out as usual.

So imagine the shock that went through district offices this month when they opened their second quarter unemployment reimbursement bills from the state Department of Revenue, and they saw amounts anywhere from two to 328 times higher than what they owed in first quarter.

Hillsborough County experienced perhaps the most dramatic increase, with its charge up to $1.05 million from $3,204 the quarter before. Claims for Pinellas County schools rocketed from $26,709 in the first quarter to over $600,000.

“What we’re now being billed for in a quarter is twice the annual budget for that,” said Kathy Scalise, Pasco County director of employee relations, whose district’s total rose to $326,634 from $5,397. “How do we make that up? It’s quite frightening.”

And in many cases, district officials said, it doesn’t add up.

Though the due date has come and gone, several have yet to send their checks, which, because of a federal grant, must cover half the amount. They’re taking more time to pore over every claim, which they didn’t have a chance to verify before the state paid.

In normal times, officials explained, districts see the paperwork ahead of time and can stop ineligible ones from moving forward. During the pandemic, with the state unemployment system bombarded and struggling to keep up, that practice fell off.

Paige Landrum, spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity, said via email that the state hadn’t taken any steps that might have caused such a spike. She noted that employers, including school districts, receive notification of claims filed and have the opportunity to challenge any charges they disagree with.

“It is important to keep in mind that there are reasons other than a layoff or furlough that could cause an individual to become unemployed,” Landrum added. “For example, the individual may have had to quit because they were diagnosed with COVID-19.”

Hillsborough chief business officer Gretchen Saunders, who chairs the state’s School Finance Council, said as members have begun auditing the paperwork, they’ve found some legitimate filings. But they’ve also discovered employees who wrongly thought they were eligible, and even some claims that could end up being fraudulent.

She anticipated several disputes.

Officials in a number of districts indicated they’re headed down that path.

Scalise said the Pasco district had uncovered claims made in the name of retired employees who had not submitted any paperwork to the state. Highlands County deputy superintendent Andrew Lethbridge, referring to substitute teachers, said his district received claims for people who “have not subbed for us for years and some that applied and had qualified for a sub job but did not sub even one day for us.”

Highlands County’s bill rose to $74,272, an “extraordinary” amount, Lethbridge said, when compared to the district’s average of “a couple of thousand dollars.”

“We did not have to layoff or furlough anyone,” he said via email. “There were daily substitutes that would have been impacted financially, as they would not have worked when we were closed down, and they do represent some of the claims. ... We are contesting many of the claims that we do not feel were appropriate.”

Flagler County schools' claims jumped from five in the first quarter, totaling $1,288, to 120 in the second quarter, totaling $91,316. District spokesman Jason Wheeler suggested many of them should be overturned.

“There are several names that filed unemployment claims during COVID, including existing employees that continued to receive their full pay, as well as employees that have retired from our district well before COVID occurred,” Wheeler said via email.

That’s not to say that every item is illegitimate.

Mitsi Corcoran, chief financial officer for Sarasota County schools, said that although her district did not let go any full-time employees, “there are many other contracted employees who rely upon the district for payment such as after school childcare workers who are paid from parent fees.”

When the schools shut their doors, Corcoran noted, these workers no longer were making money from the district and might have filed valid claims. The district, like others, is sorting through the documents to make sure it pays actual costs only.

Sarasota’s bill increased to $439,958 in the quarter that ended June 30, up from $4,008 the previous quarter.

Saunders said she didn’t see anything nefarious in the way this situation has played out.

Some workers, such as bus drivers, might have thought that they qualified for unemployment because they weren’t making as much as usual as extra assignments dried up, she noted. At the same time, the state was busy trying to respond to complaints of late or unpaid support that many out-of-work Floridians needed to get by.

Her concern centered more on the fact that districts now faced the prospect of paying bills they might not owe, and then awaiting reimbursement after challenges are reviewed — all at a time when many expect possible spending cuts amid decreased revenue.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who has criticized the unemployment system and its treatment of claimants, was less charitable.

“Obviously, we can’t put the blame on Floridians for trying to access their benefits. And we can’t blame the school districts,” Eskamani said. “This is another example of the (Department of Economic Opportunity’s) incompetence.”

School district budgets already are tight, she observed, and they should not be expected to pay a bill that doesn’t reflect reality.

“This is just more of the same chaos caused by an unemployment system that failed,” Eskamani said.