Some Floridians finally seeing new $300 unemployment checks after delay

After two weeks, some claims for new payments and extended benefits are going through. Some still haven’t.
Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are photographed on Nov. 5 in Surfside.
Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are photographed on Nov. 5 in Surfside. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Jan. 11, 2021

Two weeks after President Donald Trump signed a new $900 billion federal pandemic relief package, many unemployed Floridians are still waiting on help to arrive.

The new aid, including weekly $300 checks, has been delayed as the state figures out how best to incorporate the new benefits into its unemployment system. But as with the Florida’s vaccine rollout and plans for rent relief, the lack of details about a timetable for the payments has frustrated users.

Related: Florida's vaccine rollout: So far, not enough doses, no real plan

“For the last week and a half, our office phones have been ringing off the hook because of all the confusion over this,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, who’s been cataloging unemployment questions and complaints on social media.

The package provides $300 per week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), a popular program that paid $600 per week before ending in July. It also extends programs like Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), benefitting gig workers and the self-employed; and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which lengthen’s a claimant’s window of eligibility.

On Monday, many Floridians started seeing $300 payments for the week ending Jan. 2. Eskamani said that Department of Employment Opportunity officials told her Monday that the agency was aware that some payments weren’t being processed and that they planned to clear the backlog this coming weekend.

“It’s clear not every claimant has been processed,” Eskamani said. “There’s still people not seeing any kind of status update.”

The stimulus package also outlined a new program called Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation, which pays an additional $100 per week to self-employed and gig workers who earned at least $5,000 in the last taxable year. States had to opt into that benefit, and Florida did so almost immediately — but has yet to say how eligible workers can get it.

“To my knowledge there is still no way,” Eskamani said.

A Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman said the state was “working diligently” to incorporate Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation. That tracks with the state’s messaging ever since the bill went into law, with the department tweeting in December it was “working diligently” to implement changes and extensions “as quickly as possible.” The department has advised claimants to log into its unemployment platform, CONNECT, every 48 hours to look for new guidance.

Desmond Leonard-Calhoun, a Jacksonville chef who’s been unemployed since March, said he’s gotten far more information about Florida’s unemployment changes from Twitter than the state itself.

“If I didn’t have the internet or Twitter, I wouldn’t honestly know what was going on,” said Leonard-Calhoun, 35. “And that’s sad, because not everybody has that luxury.”

Twitter is also where John Cranman of Vero Beach turns for help. A freelance videographer from Vero Beach, his Pandemic Unemployment Assistance ran out Dec. 26. Based on the new legislation, he believes he should be able to extend his eligibility into April.

But when Cranman logs into CONNECT, he sees no option to claim new weeks or even get the process rolling. The relief package stipulates that gig workers must provide documentation of a loss of income in order to keep getting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and the state hasn’t said how to do that, either.

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“I’m in limbo right now, because I’m not sure what’s going on,” said Cranman, 45. “I’m on Twitter trying to find this stuff out. I do not rely on the DEO to tell me. They’re so behind the curve on that.”

Leonard-Calhoun said his first $300 payment was being processed Monday. That’s a good sign, he said. But it also doesn’t definitively answer any questions about the state’s timeline, especially when others on his feed weren’t seeing the same thing.

“In order for them to ensure confidence in people, they need to be a little more transparent,” he said. “They owe it to the people to at least be honest with us. Even if you said, ‘Hey, we messed up, it’s going to be a couple of weeks,’ we would understand that. But the fact that you have to sit and wonder makes you think the worst.”