Changes coming to Florida unemployment benefits, many Floridians still owed and locked out

Florida announced it will soon stop providing additional federal unemployment benefits. That supplement adds up to $300 a week for people collecting unemployment.

The change will go into place on June 26 as part of the state’s push for people to return to work.

Those federal benefits are going away at a time when 9 Investigates learned many Floridians still aren’t receiving payments they’re owed.

READ: Out-of-work Floridians will soon get less money as federal compensation program ends

In an effort to cut down on fraud, the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) made the verification process more strenuous back in February with the help of a third-party vendor, ID.me. Months later, some people are still locked out.

The extra steps were added following a wave of new claims filed in January, leading state leaders to believe there was a flood of fraud. However, making it harder for scammers to access the system also made it harder for a lot of out-of-work Floridians to claim benefits they need.

For the past year, Erin Turner’s lack of prospects in event planning have kept her on unemployment. Her husband, Jade Apisuk, who used to sell wine to our major resorts and theme parks, was also laid off.

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“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” Turner said. “We had to do a lot to get it all set up, but it was going fine until there was a problem.”

That problem happened around the same time that the DEO put stricter security measures in place meant to stop fraud. In February, Erin’s account was locked and flagged, and she hasn’t been able to collect benefits since.

On the third-party vendor ID.me’s website, Jade elevates his wife’s issue once a week, and when he calls the number given to out-of-work Floridians to try to sort out problems like this, the automated recording hangs up on him with no callback option.

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“The Department of Economic Opportunity is incredibly understaffed, and that’s the struggle with this,” State Rep. Anna Eskamani said. “There really doesn’t feel like there is anywhere to go.”

Eskamani’s office has received thousands of inquiries about people being locked out of their accounts like this, as well as other types of fraud; but even as a lawmaker, it can take weeks to get a response from the DEO.

“It’s very ironic that right now we have thousands of Floridians locked out of their accounts, and can’t get their benefits, while we’re also cutting off benefits,” Eskamani said.

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As the federal supplement she’s referring to is set to go away next month, that means the money Erin and Jade’s family is currently receiving is set to be cut in half.

“Florida’s unemployment system, compared to the rest of the country, is actively discouraging people from going on unemployment,” Apisuk said. “They make it incredibly difficult.”

A spokesperson for the DEO couldn’t say how many accounts had been flagged for fraud, but told us in a statement: “The Department is aware of an issue where some claims are being re-locked in CONNECT after their identity has been verified through ID.me. We are working diligently to resolve the issue and unlock claims that have been re-locked. The Department continuously unlocks claims through an automated process after claimants have been verified with ID.me. For existing claimants who have verified their identity and continue to have their claims re-locked, they should allow at least 24-48 hours for the claim to be unlocked.”

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.

Adam Poulisse, WFTV.com

Adam Poulisse joined WFTV in November 2019.