Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson wants the federal Department of Labor to provide help to the state as he's heard “multiple accounts” of Floridians put out of work by Hurricane Irma unable to apply for disaster assistance.
The state Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees Florida's unemployment system, disputes the claim.
In a letter Monday to U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Nelson said constituents have been unable to use a Department of Economic Opportunity website to apply for disaster unemployment assistance, despite the extension of an application deadline to Nov. 14.
“They are getting kicked out of the online application system because they are not eligible for traditional unemployment insurance, despite being eligible for DUA (disaster unemployment assistance),” Nelson wrote. “When they call a representative for help, it can take hours on the phone to properly complete the application. An extension is pointless if the current process is not corrected to facilitate the proper management of the program.”
Nelson said applicants are being disqualified as answers allowed for disaster unemployment benefits are being rejected under criteria for regular unemployment benefits.
Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Tiffany Vause called Nelson's claim “not true.”
“The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is committed to offering assistance to those impacted by Hurricane Irma,” Vause said in an email Monday night. “Nearly 34,000 Floridians have applied for Disaster Unemployment Assistance, and the application process is fully functioning.”
Vause said the agency has extended call-center hours, waived weekly work search and registration requirements for September and established a contact line for claimants so applications can be filled out over the phone.
“It should also be noted that the agency developed a tailored communication to claimants who didn't finalize their applications to encourage them to come back into the system to finish filing their applications and notified these claimants of the deadline extension,” Vause said.
The program provides assistance to businesses and residents whose employment was lost or interrupted as a result of Hurricane Irma.
Several categories of people are eligible for disaster benefits. They include:
—- People who are self-employed.
—- People who experienced a week of unemployment after Irma due to the storm.
—- People who were unable to get to work because of the storm.
—- People who were injured because of the storm and were unable to work.
Nelson, a Democrat, is running for re-election next year and is widely expected to face a challenge from Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose administration includes the Department of Economic Opportunity. Scott has not announced his candidacy.