By John Haughey
The Center Square
April 21, 2020
(The Center Square) – The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported Monday that only 40,193 of 649,314 unemployment claims filed by state residents over the past month have been paid.
That 649,314 figure may be far below the actual number of newly jobless Floridians.
DEO said as many as 800,000 applications, including some that could be duplicate claims, are waiting to be processed, and there could be tens of thousands more who have been foiled in their attempts to file claims after the DEO was overwhelmed and its system paralyzed by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Monday, according to DEO’s website, the 40,193 applicants who have received payments amount to 6.2 percent of applicants who have managed to file – the nation’s lowest and slowest rate of claimant processing, according to The Associated Press.
DEO said 162,039 claims have been processed with applicants expected to receive checks this week.
Thus far, according to the agency, nearly $60 million in unemployment payments have been issued.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has allocated at least $100 million to upgrade DEO’s website, purchased 100 servers to boost capacity, reassigned up to 2,000 state workers to help and tapped Department of Management Services Secretary Jon Satter to manage the system.
DeSantis, however, continues to resist calls to increase Florida’s $275 weekly cap on unemployment benefits and extend it beyond 12 weeks, maintaining he does not have the executive authority to do so.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democratic U.S. representative, disputed DeSantis’ claim, noting in 2010 used he used emergency powers to extend temporary unemployment benefits without the Legislature’s approval.
“It is legal in this case to do precisely what I did,” Crist said last week. “I can emphasize with where the governor is right now. These decisions are not easy. But it’s crystal clear to me what is right and what is just. And what is right and what is just in this situation is to extend greater benefits to people in a time of need.”
With resources and manpower beefing up DEO’s capacity to, hopefully, whittle back the backlog of claims and process new applicants with greater alacrity, the governor said the next step in relief will focus on small business owners.
Florida’s $50 million Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan program unveiled March 17 to help struggling operations to meet payroll and other expenses during the crisis ran out of money last week.
According to DEO, only 945, or 3 percent, of 38,000 applications for the one-year, no-interest $50,000 emergency loans were approved, with about 815 separate business owners receiving loans and 60 securing multiple loans, raising eyebrows.
Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, in a Friday letter to DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson requested information on the “winners.”
“I believe we owe it to all 38,000 applicants to be as transparent as possible,” she wrote, later telling the Orlando Sentinel, “I’m trying to get to the bottom of the small business loans, and what went down.”
Stewart said DeSantis must find funding to help small businesses, or lawmakers should do so, perhaps in a special session.
The governor agreed.
“We are looking at it. We are looking to do more money as well, and that’s something that we’re looking at,” he said.
A new federal stimulus plan that would pump another $310 billion into a federal loan program for small businesses was expected to be presented in the U.S. Senate on Monday.
As with Florida’s program, the federal Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money last week.