9 Invesitgates DEO overpayment obstacles

ORLANDO, Fla. — After 18 months of people reporting problems receiving payments from the state’s unemployment system, now many are receiving bills, with the Department of Economic Opportunity saying those claimants were overpaid.

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9 Investigates learned this is tied to the very beginning of the pandemic. From mid-March to May 2020, the DEO was automatically requesting payments for people. If people haven’t certified those weeks of payments themselves, the state is trying to reclaim them.

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Josh Watwood is back to managing a sporting goods store in Orlando after being forced to close in the spring of 2020.

“All I drew (for unemployment) was about six weeks,” Watwood said.

Mark Santiago is also back to work a few blocks away at Johnny’s Filling Station.

“I figured once we reopened, that was it,” Santiago said

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Neither of them had thought about Florida’s unemployment system since they stopped collecting benefits more than a year ago, until they received bills from the Department of Economic Opportunity.

“Initially, I honestly thought it was a scam,” Santiago said.

They’re among those dealing with the latest round of overpayment notices from DEO. Santiago’s shows he owes more than $800; Watwood’s $1100; and another woman who reached out to us showed a balance of more than $1600.

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“Navigating this has been one of the newest crises of the unemployment system,” State Rep. Anna Eskamani said.

Eskamani says the issue is adding to the hundreds of unemployment-related calls her office is still working to resolve. The DEO told 9 Investigates this stems from the beginning of the pandemic when between mid-March and May 2020 weeks of payments were ‘automatically requested by the Connect system. The state has laid out a way for people to go in and request those weeks be certified, putting the burden on the claimant to fix a mistake they didn’t make.

“It’s not their fault, so that’s been part of the challenge,” Eskamani said.

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Though a DEO representative says notices were sent out to individuals warning them of this problem before the bills were issued, these men say they had no idea. They also say trying to get logged on to the Connect system or through to a real person for help hasn’t worked.

“It’s just been incredibly frustrating,” Watwood said. “We’ve had all this time to get this worked out, and nothing’s gotten smoother. We hope to get some answers on this.”

A DEO spokesperson told 9 Investigates, “The Department sent out multiple notices to claimants earlier this year, including these individuals, to the preferred communication method indicated on the Reemployment Assistance account.

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“If they are unable to access the system, it may be due to them needing to set up multi-factor authentication, which the Department recently implemented and has included in numerous weekly Reemployment Assistance updates. This guide will be helpful for individuals that need to complete this process.

“While the system automatically processed your Reemployment Assistance benefits, claimants will now need to recertify these weeks in the system. These certification questions are the same questions claimants answer when they request benefit payments in CONNECT for each week they remain unemployed.

“The Department has a helpful guide on this, which can be found here.”

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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.