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Florida’s unemployed still haven’t been paid. And they don’t think it’s their fault.

The Times/Herald interviewed dozens of Floridians who are still struggling to receive unemployment benefits.

TALLAHASSEE — There are problems with Florida’s unemployment system.

Then there's Charlene Jackson’s problem with Florida’s unemployment system.

In March, the 39-year-old nurse for special needs children lost her job and tried to apply for unemployment for the first time in her life. But she couldn’t finish her application because she couldn’t get into the system: someone fraudulently filed for unemployment under her name.

She’s now locked out, unable to reset her login because she can’t answer the fraudster’s security questions. Calls to the Department of Economic Opportunity’s fraud line have been met with recorded messages that the line is busy.

She has not collected any unemployment benefits, she said.

“I pay my taxes," Jackson said. "I don’t owe the government anything. And when I need (unemployment), I can’t get it.”

Over the past month, the Times/Herald interviewed 40 Floridians who, like Jackson, have struggled to receive benefits during the pandemic. Reporters spent hours on the phone with them, viewed screenshots of their claims and sent their names, phone numbers and claimant ID numbers to the Department of Economic Opportunity to verify if they were eligible.

Of the 40 people, half have started to receive payments, department spokeswoman Tiffany Vause said in a Friday statement. The rest are in the “review process” for state or federal benefits, she said.

“The 40 claimants you (sent) are just 40 of the more than 16,000 names that were submitted to (the agency),” Vause said. “The team is working diligently to serve Floridians who contact the agency through the proper channels.”

The Times/Herald asked the state to review the status of the claimants to verify a claim made by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this month.

During a May 15 news conference in Jacksonville, DeSantis said that the state follows up with claimants, quoted in the media, who say they haven’t received benefits. “Nine times out of 10,” DeSantis said, their applications are incomplete.

“And I think if you have applied in (March or early April), and your application’s complete, and you qualify, I think 99.99 percent of those folks have been paid,” he added.

Of the 22 people who agreed to be quoted in this story, three have been paid all they say they’re owed by the state. All 22 disagreed with the governor’s assessment. Some found it offensive.

Carolyn Hustedde, 49, an events bartender in Tampa, got paid in full this week after 10 weeks of anxious waiting. When DeSantis made his comments, her application was still in limbo.

“I was a Gov. DeSantis fan before all of this. But I don’t like the lack of acknowledgement. I just feel like he’s just really slighted the little people,” Hustedde said. “Obviously, there was nothing wrong with my application because it was approved.”

The problems encountered by applicants interviewed by the Times/Herald range from frustrating to bizarre. Many were filing for unemployment for the first time. Some have received benefits through debit cards they had not asked for, and in amounts that fall far short of what they’re owed. Others are locked out of their accounts, leaving them unable to complete applications. Several still have applications marked “pending.”

While their stories vary, the complaints are consistent: Requests for help from the Department of Economic Opportunity yield conflicting answers, if they get answers. Calls to its contracted call centers require hours on hold and often lead to hang-ups. And the state’s unemployment website, known as CONNECT, is maddeningly complicated and often displays conflicting information.

The state — not the applicants — appears to be to blame for some of the problems. Four of the 22 said they were surprised to find that portions of their applications were not properly transferred into the system.

Don Reynolds, an Apollo Beach physical therapist, said he entered his work history when he filed online. But when he checked back later, it was missing from the site. State officials later announced that everyone who applied before April 5 needed to apply again. The state has not said why.

“They know something went wrong,” Reynolds said. “That’s a nice way of saying, ‘We’ve had a screw up here.'"

In recent weeks, the state has stepped up its response to the crisis, dishing out billions of dollars to applicants. DeSantis often touts the state’s claim that more than 95 percent of eligible claimants have been paid.

However, that figure doesn’t account for the untold number of applicants who haven’t received thousands in back pay, or the 400,000 people who have been ruled ineligible for benefits — at least some incorrectly — by the state.

All of the people interviewed by the Times/Herald spoke about the mental toll of battling a bureaucratic black hole while watching bank accounts dwindle during a global pandemic.

“I’m having trouble sleeping, I’m having trouble eating,” said Karissa Brower, 34, a Sunrise bartender who has received a few recent unemployment checks. “None of this is good for my health. My hair is falling out.”

To get answers and attention, they’ve pleaded with federal and state lawmakers, contacted reporters, crafted online petitions, emailed DeSantis’ office, joined Facebook groups, created Twitter accounts and made YouTube videos.

“You’re getting more help on these Facebook groups than you are through (the Department of Economic Opportunity),” said Wendy Ward, 40, who works for Hyatt in Orlando.

They have felt the consequences of Florida being among the worst states in the nation at processing claims.

“For a state that’s as strong as it’s portrayed, we shouldn’t be at the bottom of a 50-state list for helping people,” said Deven Light, a Largo barback.

His April 9 application is still marked “pending."

Here are some of their stories.

Hannah Ogden

Hannah Ogden, 25, of Tampa [ Hannah Ogden ]

AGE: 25

HOMETOWN: Tampa

JOB: Digital services coordinator for the United Soccer League

FIRST APPLIED: April 5

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $6,125

It took Ogden 10 hours to apply for unemployment the first time because the state’s website kept crashing. “I felt like it was almost like a typing test because I had to move through it so fast to avoid getting booted off.” She’s yet to be paid.

Barbara Hartwell

Barbara Hartwell, 52, of Sanford [ Barbara Hartwell ]

AGE: 52

HOMETOWN: Sanford

JOB: Musician/Music teacher

FIRST APPLIED: March 29

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $4,200

Hartwell spent 10 days just trying to file for unemployment on the state’s broken website. For two months, she’s struggled to make sense of her various denials and status changes. “I’m a smart person, but oh my gosh,” Hartwell said. “Someone should write a manual.” She’s yet to be paid.

Walter Conney Jr.

Walter Conney Jr., 43, of Tallahassee [ Walter Conney Jr. ]

AGE: 43

HOMETOWN: Tallahassee

JOB: Chef

FIRST APPLIED: March 22

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $6,420

The first time Conney applied for unemployment, he was denied. Conney received the letter telling him so — dated April 26 — on May 20. By then, it was too late to appeal. He’s yet to see a dime. “The whole purpose of unemployment in Florida is not to have to pay out,” Conney said.

Leonel Garcia

Leonel Garcia, 48, of Apopka [ Leonel Garcia ]

AGE: 48

HOMETOWN: Apopka

JOB: Banquets server

FIRST APPLIED: March 29

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $7,000

Garcia said he’s never been through something like this. While he’s waited for state payments, he’s been forced to drop his health insurance. The state says he’s gotten one payment. Garcia says he hasn’t.

Shanicka Dormevil

Shanicka Dormevil, 34, of Orlando [ Shanicka Dormevil ]

AGE: 34

HOMETOWN: Orlando

JOB: Licensed insurance agent

FIRST APPLIED: April 5

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $6,125

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dormevil said she was saving for a house. Now that she’s gone weeks with no income, those plans have been dashed. “This set me back like years,” Dormevil said. “I will probably never get back to where I was.” The state system shows that she’s active and eligible for benefits, she says, but she’s yet to receive any.

Wendy Ward

Wendy Ward, 40, of Orlando [ Wendy Ward ]

AGE: 40

HOMETOWN: Orlando

JOB: Works in Hyatt corporate office

FIRST APPLIED: April 17

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $5,250

Ward said the state has deemed her ineligible because she didn’t make enough money to qualify for unemployment. She did make enough money, Ward says, and this is a glitch in the state system. It can only be corrected by the information technology department at the Department of Economic Opportunity. “At this point right now I have no idea what I’m going to do for June,” Ward said.

Bonnie Carver

Bonnie Carver, 61, of St. Petersburg [ Bonnie Carver ]

AGE: 61

HOMETOWN: St. Petersburg

JOB: Social worker

FIRST APPLIED: April 14

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $5,250

Carver says it took a month for her to successfully reset her unemployment application identification number. At various points, she’s been ruled eligible for benefits and then ineligible, then back to eligible. She’s yet to be paid. “You know how most people are a couple paychecks away from being homeless or hungry?” Carver said. “That’s me.”

Michelle Campbell

Michelle Campbell, 63, of Valrico [ Michelle Campbell ]

AGE: 62

HOMETOWN: Valrico

JOB: Cruise booking agent

FIRST APPLIED: March 29

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $3,625

Campbell has been paid some of what she’s owed. But she said she’s concerned about the lack of documentation on the part of the state when it issues her the payments she’s due. “The money just kind of appeared in my bank account three times,” she said.

Shelby Thompson

Shelby Thompson, 36, of St. Petersburg [ Shelby Thompson ]

AGE: 36

HOMETOWN: St. Petersburg

JOB: Runs a sports broadcasting company

FIRST APPLIED: March 15

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $5,400

Thompson knew COVID-19 was going to be ruinous for her business sooner than most. Soon after the NBA canceled its season, she looked to apply for federal benefits through the state. She’s yet to receive any. “There’s no possible way on earth that my unemployment is not due to COVID,” she said.

Carolyn Hustedde

Carolyn Hustedde, 49, of Tampa [ Carolyn Hustedde ]

AGE: 49

HOMETOWN: Tampa

JOB: Bartender for events

FIRST APPLIED: March 22

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $0

This week, Hustedde was paid in full. Still, that happened only after she granted numerous interviews to news outlets interested in her predicament. And even then, it took her 10 weeks to get paid.

Lisa Wright

Lisa Wright, 56, of Fort Lauderdale [ Lisa Wright ]

AGE: 56

HOMETOWN: Fort Lauderdale

JOB: Software consultant

FIRST APPLIED: March 19

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $4,050

Wright is one of the lucky ones. She said her information technology training led her to sense early on that the state’s online unemployment system would collapse. She successfully submitted an application in March, meaning she didn’t have to reapply later like so many others. Even so, she’s waited months only to be paid about half of what she says she’s owed.

Glenn Barca

Glenn Barca of Wesley Chapel [ Courtesy Glenn Barca ]

AGE: 53

HOMETOWN: Wesley Chapel

JOB: Chauffeur

FIRST APPLIED: March 25

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $1,200

After eight weeks, Barca received his benefits. But the system incorrectly shows him earning zero wages last year, meaning he gets the minimum of $125 each week. “You never get to a point in this process where you can take a deep breath and go, 'Finally, I can take my mind off this.’ There’s no closure."

Keyonna Lewis

Keyonna Lewis, 30, lost her job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Keyonna Lewis ]

AGE: 30

HOMETOWN: Kissimmee

JOB: Preschool teacher

FIRST APPLIED: March 26

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $2,700

Lewis received her first federal and state payment this month, but with that payment, her claim reverted to “redetermined,” and she hasn’t seen anything since. She estimates she’s called the state at least 500 times. “This website, and this situation, is kind of set up for you to fail."

Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell, 64, lost his job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Richard Jewell ]

AGE: 64

HOMETOWN: Tampa

JOB: Sales representative (independent contractor)

FIRST APPLIED: April 19

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $5,250

Jewell’s application is still marked “pending,” yet one of his co-workers with the same job is receiving their benefits, he said. “I’m a well-educated, highly active, willing to work, politically active, intelligent human being. I’m not a stereotype or a stigma. And yet I am being absolutely mistreated by this system.”

Rachel Strickland

Rachel Strickland, 34, lost her job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Rachel Strickland ]

AGE: 34

HOMETOWN: Tampa

JOB: Bartender and events coordinator

FIRST APPLIED: March 26

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $4,200

In the last week, Strickland received all of the money she’s owed. She’s filed for unemployment twice before and the system has not been improved. “I honestly feel like they’re embarrassed and scared to admit that they didn’t fix a system they were supposed to fix.”

Karissa Brower

Karissa Brower, 35, lost her job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Karissa Brower ]

AGE: 35

HOMETOWN: Sunrise

JOB: Bartender

FIRST APPLIED: March 7

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $7,000

After 10 weeks, Brower started to receive unemployment benefits. But she has yet to receive thousands of dollars from March and April. “My credit score is dropping like a stone right now. Who’s going to fix that? Somebody needs to pass a bill that there be a moratorium on people’s credit scores."

Deven Light

Deven Light poses for a portrait on his back patio while holding his phone with showing the unemployment benefits marked as pending on Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Riverview. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

AGE: 26

HOMETOWN: Largo

JOB: Barback

FIRST APPLIED: April 9

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: He didn’t have an estimate.

Light tried numerous times to file a claim since losing his job on March 18. Finally, after the site crashed countless times, his claim went through. It’s been marked as “pending” ever since. “I just want some help, man. That’s all I need. Just to pay the bills. That’s all."

Antonia Williams

Antonia Williams, 36, lost her job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Antonia Williams ]

AGE: 36

HOMETOWN: Ormond Beach

JOB: Auto parts manufacturer

FIRST APPLIED: April 9

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: At least $4,000

Williams has received a letter saying she’s eligible for unemployment, but she has yet to receive any benefits. People who answer the state’s hotline have been hostile, she said. “She was like, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do at this moment,' and then ‘click.' She hung up the phone in my face."

Tiann Davis

Tiann Davis, 54, lost her job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Tiann Davis ]

AGE: 54

HOMETOWN: Deerfield Beach

JOB: Executive assistant

FIRST APPLIED: April 8

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $4,200

Davis said the unemployment website never allowed her to enter her employer or wage information, which are required for processing a claim. Now, she can’t change it, and she has yet to receive any benefits. “I am tech-savvy. This was not human error. This happened."

Anna Brooks

Anna Brooks, 42, lost her job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Anna Brooks ]

AGE: 42

HOMETOWN: Brandon

JOB: Habitat for Humanity store manager

FIRST APPLIED: April 6

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: $0

Brooks requested her benefits be made through direct deposit. She got a debit card and a paper check instead. Last week, she finally received benefits from previous weeks. “Calling them is worthless. It doesn’t matter the time of the day or the day of the week. It just tells you in a nice way to call back and, 'goodbye.’"

Don Reynolds

Don Reynolds, 59, lost his job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Don Reynolds ]

AGE: 59

HOMETOWN: Apollo Beach

JOB: Physical therapist

FIRST APPLIED: March 22

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: More than $4,000

Reynolds has received some benefits, but is still waiting on thousands from past weeks. He had to apply twice after the state website didn’t save his work history. “The unemployment system in Florida has put as much hardship on me as being unemployed. It’s just the worst system I’ve ever seen."

Charlene Jackson

Charlene Jackson, 39, lost her job from the coronavirus pandemic. [ Courtesy of Charlene Jackson ]

AGE: 39

HOMETOWN: Hollywood

JOB: Pediatric nurse

FIRST APPLIED: April 17

AMOUNT THEY SAY THEY’RE OWED: She didn’t have an estimate.

Jackson has been unable to finish her application because someone fraudulently filed for unemployment on her behalf. She estimates she’s made at least 100 calls to the state’s fraud hotline in the last week, without anyone picking up. “I can’t get anyone on the phone to prove that I am who I am, and this is not me.”

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