BRADENTON, Fla. — For thousands of Floridians, the fight for access to unemployment benefits isn't a problem of the past, but a plight that continues today.
Over just the last month, I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern found more than 150 people filled out ABC Action News' online form saying they were not receiving their unemployment benefits because of an "incarceration hold."
It's a problem the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) has acknowledged but hasn't fixed, as financial situations for some families grow more desperate.
“My benefits have now been held up for two months now. And they just keep telling me, just keep waiting. Just keep waiting. Just keep waiting," Cory Collins said, who has had what's called an incarceration hold on his unemployment benefits.
The hold, DEO explained, is meant to prevent unemployment fraud.
"The Department takes fraud very seriously. Incarceration holds are part of the Department’s process in combatting fraud. Individuals who have been incarcerated are not available for work, therefore they are not eligible to receive benefits," a DEO spokseperson told the I-Team. "The Department works with data provided by state entities related to incarceration issues. In addition, DEO staff reviews county inmate searches, clerk of court, county jail, and sheriff office information."
But Collins hasn't been to jail while collecting unemployment. He's been fighting for benefits and to hold on to what he has.
“You don’t lose everything at once. First, you know, it’s the job because of COVID but over time, you know, it’s the apartment, it’s the car," Collins said. "It’s kind of a slow bleed. Of just losing things until you’ll find yourself homeless."
“It was a very humbling experience," Collins said of going to the Salvation Army in Bradenton. "I never thought I’d find myself, you know, sleeping in a shelter."
Collins, who called the shelter a blessing, is among the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who lost their jobs in the pandemic.
“I was working two nightclubs in St. Pete and I was working at a thrift store on my third day off," Collins said.
When the work went away, the worry set in.
“ I lost my license because my insurance lapsed, so using the public transit system, that makes finding work difficult," Collins said.
Collins said he spends a lot of time going to the library or a nearby plaza with WiFi, to be able to call the state's unemployment office, check his email, and send "dozens" to DEO to try to get the hold on his account lifted.
"It’s left me in tears a couple of times talking to these people," Collins said. “If I could get the money from the state, the money that they owe me would at least give me a start.”
In March, DEO Executive Director Dane Eagle acknowledged to lawmakers that in an effort to stop unemployment fraud, the state was unintentionally blocking benefits to people in need.
“We realized that some were not incarcerated and may have gotten caught in there, maybe it’s faulty data," Eagle said at the time.
The continuing delays are because state employees must manually release the benefits caught in an incarceration hold.
DEO told the I-Team it is working to automate that process but doesn't know where the fix stands.
Austin Dukes, an out-of-work plumber in Jacksonville, also has an incarceration hold on his account, even though he hasn't been to jail while collecting unemployment.
“I've been through hell, excuse my language. It’s been the roughest part of my life," Dukes said. “I have an eviction I have to handle, they gave me five days, I got three days left. I have two kids, just worried about being able to feed them. I’m out of options. I’ve borrowed and everything I can do from everybody."
After daily phone calls and conversations with supervisors, Dukes said he's at the point he can't continue to wait.
“The only chance I got or me and my kids are going to be living in the streets is to get this money and to be able to pay my rent," Dukes said.
DEO told the I-Team some of the reasons people may have an incarceration hold on their account for weeks in which they were not in jail or prison:
- Claimant is released prior to the effective date of the claim
- Claimant was arrested after the effective date of their claim, but not during any claimed weeks
- Claimant was not incarcerated for the majority of the week for which they claimed
What's still unclear is what caused the problem now, why so many people in the last few months are citing incarceration hold as the reason they aren't getting benefits.
DEO hasn't been able to answer how many people are impacted, but told the I-Team the department should have the incarceration holds straightened out by the end of the week and that it is committed to getting people paid as quickly as possible.
UPDATE: After his account was in a hold for more than two months, Collins told the I-Team he has now received the unemployment money he was owed. Dukes said he was told he should be getting his unemployment benefits released to him next week.