TALLAHASSEE — The state of Florida wants its money back. And it’s not playing around.
Like many states, when Florida mistakenly pays someone unemployment benefits, officials work hard to claw back the money. This year, when demand for benefits reached unprecedented levels because of the coronavirus pandemic-related economic restrictions, Florida officials had to keep track of more payments than ever.
Since March 15, the Department of Economic Opportunity says it has paid out more than $17 billion in state and federal unemployment claims.
As Florida’s economy is beginning to show signs of a resurgence, an untold number of Floridians are getting notices from the department notifying them that they were paid by mistake. Those people owe the state money.
Other states have started making requests, as well. In Texas, officials are reportedly seeking to recoup $203 million from about 185,000 people. In Ohio, some 160,000 people were reportedly overpaid in August and September alone. (Despite the raw numbers, overpayments represent a relatively small percentage of overall unemployment claims in these states.)
But officials at Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity won’t disclose how many owe the state a refund. On Sept. 22, the Times/Herald requested the amount in unemployment overpayments the state believes it’s made since March 1.
A spokeswoman for the department replied this week that calculating how much the state is owed in refunds would remove resources from paying unemployed Floridians their benefits.
“The exact information you have requested is not readily available,” wrote Tiffany Vause, the department’s director of communications. “A report would have to be created, which will take time and resources away from the mission of paying eligible Floridians as quickly as possible.”
State Sen. Jason Pizzo has been one of the more vocal lawmakers during the state’s unemployment crisis. He said his office has collected information from thousands of unemployed Floridians who have had trouble navigating the Department of Economic Opportunity bureaucracy.
The North Miami Beach Democrat said the department needs to be keeping closer tabs on how much it’s overpaid Floridians.
“We are in a cash crunch,” Pizzo said." “What are we talking about? If they think 100,000 people owe them an average of $1,000, that’s $100 million.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Florida improperly paid out about $25 million in benefits in 2019. Some of the overpayments were the result of fraud, some were mistakes on the part of the department. The state ultimately recouped about $13.4 million of those overpayments.
In total, the state paid out about $306.6 million in benefits in 2019, Department of Labor data showed. Since mid-March, Florida has paid out almost 56 times that much in state and federal benefits.
At least some of the Floridians who’ve recently been notified of overpayments say the state is mistaken.
Don Reynolds, a physical therapist from Apollo Beach, is one such case. The state says he was overpaid by $2,475, which would add up to 9 weeks of the maximum state benefit of $275.
Reynolds first applied for benefits on March 22. Included in that application was a summary of his past work history — unemployment benefit amounts are determined in part by how much an applicant has made in the past.
But because of the state’s well-documented technical failure to handle the initial spring surge of unemployment claims, Reynolds' first application appears to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Reynolds said he re-applied on April 26 and noticed the work history he had entered in March had been deleted. So he re-entered the data.
Reynolds said a few weeks went by, but the state eventually started paying him state and federal benefits. In July, he was called back to work.
In early September, Reynolds says he got a letter from the state notifying him that he’d been overpaid. When he checked his account on the state’s CONNECT website, it said he had until Aug. 10 to appeal the state’s decision. That date had long since passed. Reynolds says the letter from the state was the first notice he saw about the alleged overpayment.
A department spokeswoman noted that even if an overpayment appeal is filed after the deadline given by the state, an “appeals referee will take evidence on the timeliness issue to determine if the appeal was filed within the time permitted by law.”
Ultimately, the state’s technological failure from the spring may have cost Reynolds. If his unemployment application included an incomplete work history — likely through no fault of Reynolds’s — it may look to the state like he was not entitled to the money he got.
He said he’s unsure what to do now. The cost of a lawyer would likely cost Reynolds the money he’s trying to keep.
“I wouldn’t mind paying it back if they overpaid me, but they didn’t,” Reynolds said.