TAMPA, Fla. — As Americans celebrate workers this Labor Day, thousands of Floridians are still struggling to collect unemployment as they continue to apply for jobs.
Rustie MacDonald is one of them.
"I applied to 225 jobs," MacDonald told the ABC Action News I-Team. “The one job that I did accept, I ended up getting discharged because I found out I might have breast cancer. And so I have to go for a lot of follow-ups -- this was last week. And they have a zero miss policy for the first 30 days."
In a typical year, the single mother of a teenage daughter does seasonal work as a tax preparer, then sets up in-store demos, and works summers at a theme park up north.
But after applying for unemployment for the second time, earlier this year, MacDonald is still stuck.
“If you look, it’s all hold. Hold, hold, it’s 22 weeks of holding. And I don’t understand why" MacDonald said. “There’s no way to email them, no way to call them, I can’t send smoke signals, I did send them social media and they bit back, saying there’s nothing they can do, we’re just social media.”
When asked how much she is owed at this point in unemployment benefits, MacDonald replied, "Almost $8,000."
On Aug. 26, MacDonald sent an email addressed to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and Secretary Dane Eagle and included other DEO employees, as well as Governor Ron DeSantis' office, asking for Eagle to resign.
- FBI: Unemployment fraud is 'a crisis situation'
- Florida renters being evicted while waiting for DCF’s Our Florida rental assistance program
- Tampa man hasn't received 7 months worth of unemployment benefits
In her message, MacDonald wrote that she has "sent certified letters, I have faxed almost daily, there is no way to email/ chat/ call/ tweet/or any other form of communication with your department."
She explained that she has waited months to receive unemployment benefits, impacting her credit and putting her and her daughter at risk of losing their housing.
MacDonald went on to write that the leaders handling Florida's unemployment benefits, "are anywhere but on the front lines. Anywhere but getting the programs to work for those who need it the most."
The DEO has not responded to a request for comment on MacDonald's letter.
"These are not fake stories," MacDonald told the I-Team of herself and others. "These are real people with real issues."
DEO has said it is "declining" ABC Action News' request for an interview with Secretary Eagle, so Floridians who pay his $144,200 salary could hear from the head of the department directly on issues like unpaid unemployment benefits and fraud.
At the federal level, last week, it was announced that $2 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act will allow the U.S. Department of Labor to help states modernize their unemployment systems to "ensure timely payment of benefits" and detect fraud.
FACT SHEET | Unemployment Insurance Modernization American Rescue Plan Act: Funding for Timely, Accurate and Equitable Payment in Unemployment Compensation Programs
“Quite honestly, in most systems, the system is antiquated. Now the challenges in each state and each region are different, but we’re working with each state and each region to talk about what the investment needs to happen," Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh said.
The I-Team asked Walsh what message he has for Floridians who are still struggling to collect unemployment.
"I know there’s a lot of people working on this and there are people in Florida working on this, there are people in Washington working on this, making sure the people who are entitled to their benefit get their benefit," Walsh said. "The office we created is so things like this don’t happen to the next person that needs the benefits to live on.”
MacDonald said people have been hanging on as long as they can.
- Former manager: Calls forwarded to 'threat line' with unemployed threatening to hurt or kill themselves increased
- Former call center workers struggle to collect unemployment from same system they were hired to help
“There’s not attention being paid to what’s happening here on the ground and people like me — and all of the other people in the community that are trying to help a vast number of individuals in this situation — and are frustrated because we’re not being heard," MacDonald said.
The ABC Action News team has now sent the names and information of more than 33,000 Floridians to the state, who say they are still struggling to collect the unemployment benefits they are owed.