Gov. DeSantis frustrated, under pressure as thousands of jobless Floridians await benefits

Gov. Ron DeSantis attended a ceremonial opening of a highway interchange in Orlando in May, one of more than 50 he expedited during the COVID-19 shutdown. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.

Under increasing pressure to pay out claims to jobless Floridians and fix the state’s broken unemployment system, Gov. Ron DeSantis is now lashing out at the media.

He’s also facing Democrats in the Florida Senate, who are doing daily tracking of how many Floridians are still not getting paid from what has become a nightmare benefits system for the jobless.

The Senate’s data, called “Florida Unemployment Benefits Watch” said that as of May 16, 784,512 Floridians are still waiting for payment. The benefits watch has a hashtag #paytheclaimsnow.

Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, the Democratic leader in the Florida Senate, arranged for hand-delivery to the governor’s office on Monday more than 1,000 names, including claimant ID numbers. Her caucus had collected the material, she said in a press release.

The applicants represent families and individuals “that have been out of work and not received their unemployment since March,” Gibson stated in the release.

The latest data from the Florida Department of Health showed 46,442 Florida cases with 1,997 deaths related to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, DeSantis scrapped briefly Monday with a reporter who said he’d delivered to the administration the names of 5,000 Floridians who were still awaiting the outcomes of COVID-19-related unemployment compensation claims they’d filed in March.

On Friday, the governor had encouraged reporters to forward information about people who were unhappy with the claims process. But during a news conference in Orlando three days later, DeSantis let show his frustration with complaints about the system.

“Did you vet any of them? Did they submit a valid Social Security number?” DeSantis demanded during a press conference in Orlando involving a transportation project. The governor took questions during the event.

The reporter’s identify wasn’t clear via a video feed of the news conference but he identified himself on Twitter as Orlando TV reporter Greg Angel. He replied that he had not and asked whether that wasn’t that the state’s job.

He started to ask whether DeSantis was dismissing such complaints as invalid.

“I’m not dismissing, but here’s the facts,” DeSantis said.

“When you say, ‘I have somebody,’ the question is, has that person completed the application.”

The governor cited a frustrated applicant whose name a reporter in Tampa had forwarded. Upon investigation, state workers discovered that the person’s employer was contesting the application.

DeSantis has argued in the past that delayed or rejected applications mostly were the applicants’ fault, because these have tended to lack all the information needed to process them.

“All of these have individual facts,” the governor said Monday.

“Here’s what I can tell you: More than $2 billion has now been paid out. And for all the unique, complete, and eligible applicants, 97 percent have now been paid.”

A website operated by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity indicated that, as of Friday, the state had reviewed nearly 2 million claims and paid 896,921 worth more than $2 million.

Unemployment Claim. Credit: YouTube.

On Tuesday, DeSantis said, he plans to release a data dump covering applications and benefits paid to date and go over “some of the common pitfalls” into which applicants have fallen.

And he chided the press.

“I think it’s your responsibility, if you’re representing that there’s someone in March who hasn’t been paid, to tell your viewers whether that someone is a valid applicant or not. If someone applies and doesn’t support [c.q.] a Social Security number, guess what? You can’t pay under those circumstances,” DeSantis said.

“You are not even investigating whether they’re valid claims. You’re just asserting that people have applied,” he said.

The governor added that claims are paid in the order they’re received and that “if you apply today, you’re not going to leapfrog someone” who applied earlier.

The wave of joblessness followed DeSantis decision in early April to shut down most of the state’s economy to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

Orlando Democratic House member Anna Eskamani, meanwhile, tweeted in response to the governor’s remarks Monday: “So it’s a reporter’s job to vet claimants for @FLDEO? I thought that was the DEO’s job.”

Last week, DeSantis compared the computerized application system he’d inherited from Rick Scott to “a jalopy and they put you in the Daytona 500.” He said it was designed to handle 1,000 applicants at a time and withstand surges of up to 5,000, but began fielding 100,000 at a time because of COVID-related job losses.

He’s also argued that the state needs to verify information provided against federal databases.

“I know it’s like, take an anecdote here, but I’m telling you, you’ve got a responsibility, if you’re going to put that out to viewers to say that ‘We’ve looked into it; the person submitted Social Security; the person is eligible,’ and not just say that, ‘Oh, someone said.’” DeSantis continued.

“Because you know what? Under normal circumstances, we’re getting people from other countries applying. We’re getting people from other states applying. And so that all goes through the process.” Such claims would be denied under Florida law.