I-Team: Fighting for your unemployment claims

Posted at 5:32 PM, Oct 09, 2020
and last updated 2021-08-10 12:19:55-04

TAMPA, Fla. — ABC Action News is taking action for you, trying to get you the unemployment help we know you need.

I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern and the ABC Action News team have been working for months to get you answers and get you paid.

To hold state unemployment officials accountable, so far, ABC Action News has sent the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) the names and information of more than 26,000 people. These are people who say they are still waiting on state or federal unemployment checks they are owed.

Having trouble with Florida unemployment? Let us help:

  • If you are unemployed and having problems with receiving federal funds, state unemployment funds, problems with the DEO website or unemployment account issues, click here.

In some cases, we found it’s getting people help quicker. We plan to pick people at random each week who have submitted their information, to see where their unemployment claim stands and if they've been paid.

Michelle Shoup

  • Sophomore at Eckerd College
  • Applied for unemployment in March after losing her job as a hostess

As lawmakers propose increasing and extending the state's weekly unemployment benefits, many Floridians say they still have yet to receive the money they are owed, seven months after losing work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Michelle Shoup said she poured all of her savings into getting into her dream school, Eckerd College.

“I’ve been working very, very hard to get here, which is why I want to stay here and need the help that I am trying to get," said Shoup.

Shoup told the I-Team she was working and going to school full-time before she lost her job as a hostess due to the pandemic.

That was in March.

Like many, it was the start of what would become days fills with phone calls and emails to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

Shoup said she's tried desperately to find out why her application was denied, only to be given different answers each time she calls the state's unemployment office.

“Basically the answer I got was, not that I was ineligible, but that there were errors in my account," said Shoup. “If I wait a few weeks and log on again, that it might be there, was the last answer I got. And that’s kind of when we reached out to you guys because I just, I don’t have the time anymore."

ABC Action News continues to send the names and information of claimants who are still waiting on unemployment benefits to DEO.

“It’s basically impossible to catch up at this point without the help of the government that we were promised," said Shoup. “Reading the stories in the news is very helpful in knowing that I’m not alone in this, and just hope everyone else also understands that you’re not alone if you’re having problems with this."

In May, the I-Team discovered Florida had collected more interest on its then largely untapped unemployment fund than any other state.

Five months later, the I-Team found Florida is collecting the fourth most interest in the country, behind Oregon, North Carolina and Washington — earning more than $10 million in interest on its state unemployment fund as of the end of September.

“I think that’s a combination of two things, one, that the fund was funded, but also that benefits are going out slowly," said Michele Evermore, an unemployment expert with the National Employment Law Project. "The unemployment insurance system in most states has been a nightmare for people, but in Florida, it has been especially traumatic”

DEO maintains its priority is ensuring eligible Floridians are paid their benefits as quickly as possible.

Jill Sinibaldi

  • Lives in Fort Myers
  • Taxi driver
  • Recently received all of the unemployment money she was owed

Single mom Jill Sinibaldi is sharing her story after months of trying to collect unemployment, to give others hope.

Like so many, Sinibaldi told the I-Team she once felt desperate.

"Absolutely desperate. I did not know where to go and I just started contacting news stations and more news stations," said Sinibaldi. "You’re the only one that replied, actually. I didn’t get a reply from anybody else.”

Then, she received all of the unemployment money she was owed.

“I was in Walmart actually, getting formula for the baby, and I checked my account and I literally screamed, and everybody was like staring at me, staring at me because I’m crying and screaming and they thought something was wrong with me," said Sinibaldi. "I’m like no, I’m just so excited, I’ve got all this money, this is awesome.”

It's a sense of relief Sinibaldi said she knows others are still waiting on.

“All my credit cards are paid, my rent is caught up," said Sinibaldi. "So it's good. Really good. This is the first bit of relief I’ve had since March.”

Sinibaldi is encouraging others to keep calling and emailing DEO.

“I don’t want anybody to give up. It’s frustrating and time consuming and so very annoying, but don’t give up.," said Sinibaldi.

John Lebeau

  • Lives in North Palm Beach
  • Uber driver
  • Still trying to file for unemployment after first attempt in April

John Lebeau is among the Floridians who have yet to receive even one unemployment check
“It’s been 6 months for me. It makes no sense whatsoever," Lebeau told the I-Team.

Lebeau is actually still trying to get through the application process to even successfully file for unemployment.

After the I-Team sent Lebeau's name and information to the state, he received an email from the Department of Economic Opportunity, saying it received an inquiry on his behalf to assist him with his unemployment application. But the letter only only provides the same number to call and says, "a member of our team may reach out to you."

In the meantime, Lebeau said he's signed up for food stamps to get by.

“I am making just enough driving for Uber to eat and feed my dogs," said Lebeau. "I cannot pay my mortgage payment and I’m barely making the car payment.”

There's no telling exactly how many people like Lebeau are still out there, falling through the cracks of the state's data that says more than 97% of eligible Floridians have received payments, since Lebeau is still trying to get his application through.

Julie Francis

  • Lives in St. Petersburg
  • Worked at Cafe Gala inside the Salvador Dalí Museum
  • Applied for unemployment benefits four months ago

After applying for unemployment benefits four months ago, Francis told the I-Team, “I’ve not received any of it.”

When Francis logs into CONNECT, her claim still says “pending.”

“That screen has never changed,” said Francis. “I found out that the claim number is overlapping with somebody else, so somebody else probably isn’t getting their unemployment.”

As Francis continues to work to get her claim processed, she has a message for the governor’s newly appointed head of DEO, State Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral.

“Good luck,” said Francis. “And do it. You know, come up with some really solid solutions and get the work done.”

You can click here to read the full story.

Fla. Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach

The state’s moratorium on evictions is scheduled to end September 1 unless Governor Ron DeSantis extends the order.

On Thursday, August 27, the I-Team spoke with Democratic Senator Jason Pizzo, who’s been in Tallahassee working to help get people their unemployment checks.

Sen. Pizzo said at this point -- whether an out-of-work Floridian filled out an unemployment application wrong or the state Department of Economic Opportunity is to blame -- the reality is, a wave of evictions is coming.

“Do I have several thousand people who are broke, who cannot pay their rent or mortgage and in five days they’re going to be evicted? Do we have that situation again, for another month, for the fourth month in a row? Absolutely,” said Sen. Pizzo.

Sen. Pizzo and his team have been gathering information from claimants -- 3,000 names and counting this week alone -- to deliver to DEO before the end of the day Friday.

“When I have phone calls and text messages on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, and phone calls to the office, and emails about people wanting to kill themselves, about a mother that walked into oncoming traffic and unfortunately, she said the trucks veered away from her at nighttime, and single moms that need chemo treatments, it just didn’t feel right to stay home,” said Pizzo.

As out-of-work Floridians try to claim their benefits, a DEO spokesperson told the I-Team on August 21 that out of the 2.9 million unique claimants, 1.4% have appeals pending.

That's more than 40,000 people with appeals pending, after being denied unemployment benefits.

A DEO spokesperson added that the number of appeals is constantly changing.

RECOMMENDED: State will apply for federal program that provides additional benefits for out-of-work Floridians, Gov. DeSantis says

Amy Mechtell

  • Lives in Brandon
  • Works for a medical company
  • Was furloughed for six weeks back in June

Amy Mechtell applied for unemployment when she was furloughed, but was denied. She told the I-Team this is because the state has her wages listed incorrectly.

“You only have 20 days to appeal, so by the time I got the letter, the appeal date was long since passed. But I appealed anyways. I also sent requests for reconsideration, I’ve never heard back from that, so my biggest frustration for them is communication," said Mechtell. "If there’s something I’ve done or something my employer’s done, I want to fix it. And it could be an easy fix, I just can’t talk to anyone that can tell me what needs to be done.”

The I-Team contacted DEO to ask how many others are stuck in the appeals process. We are still waiting for an answer.

“You still have a lot of people that are waiting in the appeals process, myself included, and have heard nothing back. It’s been about five weeks since I appealed," said Mechtell.

Mechtell said she continues to call and email DEO and contact state representatives for help.

“This is not something I’m giving up on, by any means," said Mechtell.

Every week, ABC Action News continues to send the state the names and information of Floridians who say they are still waiting on unemployment money.

DEO has yet to tell the I-Team just how many of those people are now totally caught up on unemployment checks. That's why we've been doing our own follow-ups.

“That was one of the things that really impressed me about you and ABC Action News in general, is that you continue to do what you can to assist people and continue to shine a spotlight on this problem," said Mechtell.

Matt Ayotte

Governor Ron DeSantis has now confirmed what those out of work have long suspected -- that the state's unemployment website was designed with "pointless roadblocks" to pay out the least amount of claims.

Matt Ayotte is one of thousands who have been fighting that system for months. He was working three jobs before the pandemic hit.

“I work with entertainers, I also do event planning, keynote speaker as well," said Ayotte. “Three different sources of income and all came to an end.”

He received two weeks' worth of unemployment checks, but nothing more.

"Two and a half months with no income at all, you know, that hurts," said Ayotte.

Ayotte is self-employed and said he is owed thousands in federal unemployment money.

“I can’t even believe the federal government’s letting this happen too," said Ayotte.

As he continues to contact the state's unemployment office, local lawmakers and the governor, Ayotte encourages others still waiting on unemployment benefits to do the same.

“Don’t give up," he says.

Robin Taylor

  • Lives in Valrico
  • Met with the I-Team in July after not receiving a penny in unemployment in 12 weeks. Anonymous donor, who was once struggling to receive unemployment herself, gave $200 gift card to help Taylor.
  • Two weeks later, Taylor received all of the money she was owed.

Woman who once struggled to collect unemployment donates $200 to another out-of-work Floridian in need

“I can’t even describe it," Taylor said of the moment she received the thousands of dollars she was owed in state and federal unemployment checks. "It’s been a relief. It’s like the weight of the world has been kind of lifted off my shoulders a little bit. So I’m just tickled to death that it worked out for the best and I’m able to do something to help somebody else."

Esmerlin Sanchez

  • Lives in New Port Richey
  • Contacted the I-Team in May and was paid everything he was owed in June.

“I owed so much money in my bills and my rent," Esmerlin Sanchez told the I-Team. "And I was so afraid, I told the DEO I don’t want to be in the street.”

Sanchez was a Lyft driver and first applied for unemployment in March. He contacted the I-Team in May, when he still had not received a penny.

“I just wanted to share my story so people can not lose hope. Because personally, I lost hope!" said Sanchez. "I cried each day."

Ultimately, Sanchez went four months without a paycheck or unemployment before he was finally paid the more than $6,000 he was owed.

"From the bottom of my heart I want to say thank you to you. You helped me. You helped me to get my unemployment," Sanchez told the I-Team.

He encourages others, still waiting on unemployment checks, not to give up.

“You can’t give up and leave the DEO all the money that belongs to you," said Sanchez.

Paul Gonzalez

  • Lives in the Florida Keys
  • The I-Team sent his information to the state in May and he started unemployment the same month

Paul Gonzalez reached out to the I-Team for help after he lost his hotel job in March.

Today, he is "pretty much almost caught up," on state and federal unemployment checks and is back to work.

But Gonzalez waited nearly two months to receive any unemployment money and said he couldn't get answers from the state. Instead, he told the I-Team he relied on TV reports and newspaper articles for information.

“It’s people like you that really help all of us. And you know, we’re all on this world to help each other, we’re all here - love, fun, this is what life’s about," said Gonzalez.

This week, the I-Team contacted five random people who filled out our unemployment forms and two told us they have not received all of the money they were owed.

Bob Snyder

  • Lives in Seminole
  • Contacted the I-Team in May and a week later, received all of the state and federal unemployment checks he was owed

“There’s many people who, like myself at one point, felt like just quitting and giving up on trying to get it. Because we weren’t getting anywhere. And there’s a lot of people that still haven’t gotten any money. I mean I’m grateful for the fact that I have. And I think that’s due in part to your help, which I really appreciate, but it’s people like you who are pushing,” said Snyder.

Snyder said he wants Governor Ron DeSantis to know, “This is about taking care of people. Making sure that the people have what they need.”

NOTE: ABC Action News receives no information from DEO on specific claims. We are only able to pass claimant information on to DEO.