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Florida took an aggressive approach to unemployment fraud. Was it worth it?

The state’s strict anti-fraud measures included screening people who were “unable” to work.
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, in Surfside, Fla.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) [ WILFREDO LEE ]
Published Mar. 21
Updated Mar. 21

TALLAHASSEE — During the height of the state’s unemployment crisis last year, Florida’s jobless agency enforced anti-fraud efforts that added months of delays and frustrations for those waiting for benefits.

Pregnant women, Floridians sick with COVID-19 and those caring for children at home were denied benefits because they weren’t “able and available” for work under state law. Jobless Floridians with simple discrepancies on applications saw their claims locked, delaying payments by weeks or months.

Former call center workers hired to help claimants say that stopping fraud was prioritized over providing benefits.

“They never told us to actually help people,” said Meagan Gross, 30, who fielded calls for the state through contractor Kforce from March to August last year. “It was how to send it to adjudication, how to lock their account due to fraud.”

As lawmakers grapple with the fallout from the state’s unemployment disaster, some are calling for a re-evaluation of the strict anti-fraud measures championed for years by Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Rick Scott.

The state briefly relaxed some fraud prevention measures at the start of the pandemic. But for most of the time, the Department of Economic Opportunity employed strict anti-fraud rules, even if it meant delaying or denying payments to qualified Floridians, according to former employees, call center workers hired by the agency and state lawmakers interviewed by the Times/Herald.

Caitlin Polidoro, 29, who worked at a call center from March until September, said that if a claimant gave identifying information that was in any way inconsistent with their application, she was required to hang up on them without saying why. That’s even if the person had spent as many as eight hours on hold, which was common during the worst parts of the unemployment crisis.

“If it was a Darryl Johnson Jr. and he put Darryl Johnson II on his application, we weren’t allowed to help them,” Polidoro said. “They only had one chance.”

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said he wants a study of the ways the Department of Economic Opportunity’s unemployment website, known as CONNECT, denied benefits to Floridians.

He said the law requiring people to be “able and available” for work to receive benefits was completely out of touch with the realities of the pandemic. Other states, such as Texas, relaxed some of those requirements last year. (Those Floridians still qualified for federal benefits, although they had to first apply for state benefits.)

Pizzo said the state didn’t want pregnant women and COVID-19-positive people in public during the height of the pandemic, so denying them benefits did not make sense.

“Why would we use that as a disqualifier?” Pizzo said. “You just can’t defend against it.”

State officials and an outside audit have blamed last year’s woes on the historic surge of unemployment claims, which crushed CONNECT. Yet the approach to fighting fraud appears to have been a significant contributor to the delays many Floridians experienced.

“That’s the epitome of Florida’s unemployment system,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “Every step is about denying you coverage because they think you’re a liar.”

For years, Florida has championed its efforts to combat unemployment fraud. In 2014, it rolled out what it called a “state-of-the-art” software system. The system cross-references different data sets to identify suspicious patterns.

But evidence indicates that for years, it’s been incorrectly labeling incidents as fraud. In its first year, “fraudulent claims” shot up more than 600 percent, according to a 2016 agency presentation. The next year, the percentage of unemployed Floridians receiving jobless benefits fell three percentage points to just under 12 percent, the worst in the nation. (Florida has had the second-worst recipiency rate in the country since then.)

An investigation by the state’s chief inspector general earlier this month attributed the high 68 percent rejection rate in 2019 to, in part, the “normal functioning of the system’s fraud controls.”

The idea that so many applications were fraudulent is “absurd,” said Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank.

“We know that there were triggers put in, via policy, to program the computer to trip people up,” Woodall said. “A mistake on an application is not fraud. It’s a mistake.”

Fraud has been rampant across the country, and states have struggled to stop illegal activity while also quickly getting payments to those in need. The U.S. Department of Labor’s inspector general’s office estimates more than $63 billion has been paid out improperly through fraud or errors — roughly 10 percent of the total dispensed through pandemic-related unemployment programs since March last year, according to the Associated Press.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Florida’s tough approach on fraud was better than other states, though it has not produced any data for comparison.

“Some people were saying, ‘Hey, just pay everyone that comes through the door, and then try to figure it out on the back end who was eligible and who was not,’” he said. “You have like these Nigerian princes that are just looting some of these systems, so we didn’t want that to happen in Florida.

“I think that we maintained integrity of it, and so that will end up saving the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Last year, couples who filed claims from the same computer were flagged for fraud. So was anyone whose application did not exactly match their driver’s license — such as listing an apartment number instead of a unit number, or not including a middle initial. (The Department of Economic Opportunity said it does not have data on specific reasons people were denied unemployment.)

Those common scenarios locked applicants’ accounts, requiring intervention by a small group of higher-level employees and delaying claims, the Times/Herald found.

Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Emilie Oglesby said state and federal laws required them to screen applicants whose personal situations might make them unable to work.

“If a claimant is not able and available to work because of personal reasons, then they do not meet this eligibility requirement,” Oglesby said.

In response to questions, the Department of Economic Opportunity did not say whether the fraud system was taken offline last year to speed up payments. Nor would it disclose how many referrals for fraud it has made to law enforcement.

“The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity takes Reemployment Assistance fraud seriously,” Oglesby said in a statement.

The state is also trying to get money back from some Floridians who obtained benefits. Erin Taylor, 40, of Newberry said she applied in late March last year because she was caring for her daughter, whose kindergarten classes were closed.

Despite disclosing that on her application, she received state and federal benefits until October, when she returned to work. But in February, the state informed her that she now owes $1,200.

The reason? She “was not actively seeking employment because of providing care for a family member due to the pandemic,” the Department of Economic Opportunity letter states.

She’s appealed the decision.

“I get they’re wanting to crack down on fraud,” Taylor said. But “it should not be this hard just to put food on the table and pay the bills.”

Call center workers said they wondered why people who seemed to most need the benefits weren’t allowed to receive them.

“If someone was hospitalized due to COVID, it was like, well, they weren’t able to work,” said Gross, the contractor who fielded calls. She said CONNECT’s frequent malfunctions made the situation worse.

“People with any kind of disability, or language barrier, or pregnancy or health issue were discriminated against.”

Polidoro said the department took a strict line on people who divulged personal details. Call center workers couldn’t ask if someone was pregnant, for example, but if it came up, they were required to flag their case, which would stop payments and lead to a lengthy arbitration process.

“They specifically told us in training to create these issues and to gather as much information as possible,” Polidoro said. “We weren’t allowed to tell them.”

Polidoro said she was required to flag people who did not have a working vehicle, were students, pregnant, sick or home taking care of their children. Her recollection was confirmed by department training records.

“Obviously, no one had child care at one point, because everything was closed down,” she said. “It never made any sense to us. It was just what we were told to do.”