TAMPA, Fla. — A move last year to help people out of work get paid unemployment benefits more quickly could backfire for potentially hundreds of thousands of Floridians if they don't take steps now to certify their benefits.
That's because a decision the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) made to automatically process benefits between March 15, 2020, and May 9, 2020, in response to the spike in claims, violated federal law.
In the first month of the pandemic alone, a surge of nearly 650,000 Floridians applied for unemployment. Now, many claimants are receiving an email or letter from DEO, asking them to log into the state website CONNECT to answer questions to certify the benefits they received a year ago.
Gia Cuccaro is among the Floridians who received the notification.
"I was baffled by it. I had no idea what it was. Asking me to certify weeks from March 2020," Cuccaro said. "I'm thinking, what? I've already done that; I've gotten paid for it."
The letter asks people to answer questions in CONNECT about whether they were able to work and available for work between March 15 and May 9, 2020.
When she initially received the email, Cuccaro said she thought it was "just another glitch with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity."
But this wasn't a glitch.
It's the result of a decision DEO made last year "to help get Floridians paid as quickly as possible."
Now, people like Cuccaro are on the hook.
"They're asking us, can you just give us the go-ahead one more time because we screwed up," Cuccaro said, of being asked to certify benefits in CONNECT, which she has now done. "That's exactly what they're doing to cover their butts."
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern obtained a letter from the U.S. Department of Labor dated May 11, 2020, addressed to state agencies handling unemployment, like DEO, to remind them of the requirements for dispersing state and federal unemployment benefits.
The letter states that eligibility for CARES Act dollars is based on a person "demonstrating they meet certain eligibility requirements on a weekly basis."
By suspending that requirement, a state can lose its certification and grant to operate the program.
Now, if claimants who received the notification fail to provide answers to the certification questions in CONNECT, DEO says the unemployment benefits a claimant received in those early months of the pandemic will be considered an overpayment.
The claimant would have to pay the money back to the state.
The notification sent to claimants allows for 14 days to respond if a claimant received notification through email and 21 days to respond if they received it through U.S. mail.
Cuccaro said each step of her journey to collect unemployment over the past year has been filled with worry.
"This whole road has been confusing and scary and, you know, you press one wrong button and you’re in a hold," Cuccaro said. “I can’t afford not to get paid for three or four months being on a hold again. Who can?"