TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis is refusing to say why the state’s unemployment agency is denying benefits to Floridians who were pregnant, sick from COVID-19 or caring for children at home.
“I don’t trust the premise of the question,” DeSantis told a Times/Herald reporter during a Monday news conference. “It’s not something I’m going to accept at face value.”
When asked to elaborate, his spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, said the premise that the state was denying benefits was “false, inaccurate, and intentionally misleading to the public.”
Beatrice said all of those categories of people qualify for federal pandemic-related benefits, such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which specifically allows people to receive benefits if they are not “able and available” for work.
But for those who aren’t able and available, Florida has been denying state benefits, the maximum $275-per-week Florida offers for those who are out of work.
Even though the pandemic cost millions of Floridians their jobs and shuttered schools, former call center workers contracted by the Department of Economic Opportunity told the Times/Herald that they were told to filter out those who aren’t “able and available” for work under state law — and therefore ineligible for state benefits.
As the Times/Herald reported, call center workers said they were told to create “issues” for people who said they were pregnant. Call center workers weren’t allowed to ask, but if it came up, they were required to flag the 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,” said Caitlin Polidoro, 29, who worked at a call center from March until September. “We weren’t allowed to tell them.”
Categories of people that were to be flagged include:
- People who were pregnant and physically unable to work
- Those who were caring for children at home
- People who were sick with COVID-19
- Those who didn’t have a form of transportation
Department training records show that the state has been asking employees to flag people who met these conditions. A Newberry woman produced a denial letter from the Department of Economic Opportunity stating that she was ineligible for benefits because she was caring for a child at home.
Department Director Dane Eagle told a Senate committee Tuesday that it was “preposterous” that the state was denying pregnant women benefits.
“The State of Florida in no means denied benefits based on pregnancy,” Eagle said. “That did not happen.”
However, he did confirm the state had a lengthy backlog of cases flagged for adjudication that included women who were pregnant. Eagle said there was no way to search through the unemployment system to find pregnant cases. So his department searched emails for cases of people who were pregnant and sped up the adjudication process.
“We found several dozen, many dozen, who were pregnant and otherwise eligible who we were able to help expedite,” he said.
Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity said previously that claimants had to be “able and available” for work under state law in order to receive benefits. That’s the norm in other states. And it’s also common to deny benefits to people who aren’t “able and available” because they’re sick, in the hospital for pregnancy or have to stay home to care for children.
The U.S. Supreme Court has forbid denying benefits to people simply because they’re pregnant. It has ruled that pregnant women should not be treated differently than others, meaning that if they’re hospitalized and physically unable to work, just like someone who’s sick, they shouldn’t be allowed benefits.
However, other states relaxed some of those requirements during the pandemic. Texas allowed benefits for people who were quarantining for COVID-19 exposure, were in a “high risk” category or were caring for children at home. Michigan also expanded benefits to people who were sick or caring for family at home.
Although DeSantis removed the state’s work search requirements during the pandemic, he did not change the state’s “able and available” to work standards to receive state benefits.
“The report is right in saying that we denied claims for those who otherwise might have been sick,” Eagle said Tuesday. “That’s because we had to legally in order for them to be eligible for (federal benefits).”
Call center workers and lawmakers have wondered why the state was aggressively enforcing those rules during the pandemic, when there was a desperate need to get unemployment payments out to Floridians as quickly as possible. Those rules were part of a larger anti-fraud effort that caused people’s claims to be delayed by weeks or months.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said the rules seemed counter-intuitive. You would not want a late-term pregnant women or people exposed to COVID-19 to work during the pandemic, he said.
The Times/Herald asked Beatrice why he did not change those requirements during the pandemic. She did not respond.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
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