Workers describe being denied state jobless assistance without even an explanation

Unemployment Insurance benefits for millions of Americans who lost their jobs in Florida and across the nation due to coronavirus shutdowns and slowdowns are at center stage as Congress fights over whether to extend or slash a $600 weekly supplement paid atop state benefits. In Florida, UI benefits are capped at $275 weekly. Credit: Florida Department of Economic Opportunity

Florida’s broken unemployment system was difficult to navigate already but, even when applicants get through it, many are being denied their benefits without explanation, according to Florida labor unions and advocates.

Thomas Spellman, who was laid off from his job as a construction apprentice, said Thursday that he was denied benefits after applying three times and hasn’t been able to reach anyone on the phone to help with the process.

“The state has failed me, the system has failed me,” Spellman said during a video conference call hosted by the Florida AFL-CIO.

That union and others have launched a petition – signed by more than 10,000 Floridians – demanding Gov. Ron DeSantis issue an emergency order to “enact several policy improvements to Florida’s unemployment insurance system,” so that jobless workers can get their benefits.

Rich Templin, political director for the AFL-CIO, underscored that many applicants are rejected benefits.

“They set this system up so that people would be denied; the statute is setup to exclude more workers than to find them eligible,” he said.

“The governor should require that a reason for denial should be given at the time they are denied,” said Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy.

“He does have it in his emergency powers to take action on this,” she added.

According to AFL-CIO, nearly “40 percent of applicants have been denied benefits, as the system improves the review process, many more will be marked ineligible.”

Other jobless workers in Florida on the video call shared bad experiences about the broken unemployment system.

Serena James, who was furloughed by Walt Disney World, said she finally received her benefits Wednesday but is awaiting back pay from weeks of seeking benefits.

Disney had planned to furlough around 43,000 Florida workers in April, according to a New York Times report.

“We need some better answers, this is horrible and no one should be put through this,” James said.

Some of the recommendations listed in the petition include:

— Increase the weekly benefit cap and expand the maximum number of weeks for eligibility to 26 weeks as a base, in addition to aid from the federal government.

— Increase staff to handle online, telephone, and in-person applications submitted at CareerSource centers and for processing claims.

— Clarify that people who cannot work due to layoffs, or who have been asked to take unpaid leave, may receive unemployment benefits.

— Clarify that voluntary separations due to quarantine, unsafe working conditions, and other necessary actions related to COVID-19 do not disqualify a worker from receiving unemployment benefits.

— Upon an employer appeal, shift the burden of proof from the employee to the employer.

Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.