In 2020 and 2021, the coronavirus pandemic changed the employment status of workers in every state, including Florida. In March 2020, many companies shuttered overnight, and applications for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits soared. Congress and state UI agencies joined together to increase and extend benefits, even for those who would not usually receive them. As pandemic-related closures continue to ebb and flow, UI benefits and the requirements around them can change with alarming frequency.
UI Eligibility in Florida
Unemployed workers who apply for UI must meet the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's (DEO) requirements. First, they must have lost work through no fault of their own through layoffs, a reduction in force or a reduction in hours. They must also have earned a minimum of $3,400 in the state's base period.
The state looks at the first four of five completed quarters in the 18 months before the worker submits their UI application to calculate the amount of earnings and the duration of the claim. To continue receiving weekly benefits, the worker must show availability to work should a job arise.
Exceptions to UI Benefits Eligibility Rules
Floridians who quit or lose their jobs do not get UI benefits, but there are exceptions to this rule. If an employee does not have the skills to perform a job and gets fired, they can apply and will likely receive benefits. Firing as a result of misconduct – that which shows an intentional disregard for an employer's interests – disqualifies the claimant from receiving UI.
If an employee quits with good cause, they can receive payments, depending on their reason for voluntarily terminating the work relationship. Some examples of good cause are sexual harassment at the workplace, a dangerous work environment or simply following a spouse to a location too far from where they currently work.
UI Weekly Benefit Amount and Duration
Weekly benefits and duration vary from person to person and are calculated from the information a claimant gives to the DEO. Claimants in Florida receive up to $275 per week, or $3,300. When a claimant secures a full-time, permanent job, they will no longer receive payments. However, if they work part time or as a temp, their benefits won't necessarily end.
During a time of low or normal unemployment, claimants can receive only 12 weeks of unemployment benefits during their claim of one year before their assistance ends. However, extensions often come into play during times of extreme hardship, and since March 2020, Florida has extended UI payments during the Covid-19 pandemic with the federal government's help.
Documents and Information for UI Benefits
When applying for UI, claimants must include some identifying information so that the DEO can process their claim quickly. This includes:
- Driver's license number or state-issued ID number.
- Employer's contact information.
- Start and end dates of the last 18 months of the applicant's work history.
- Gross wages during that time.
- Reason that the job ended.
- Business' Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) number located on the employee's tax forms or pay stub.
Some people may have to provide additional information when applying for UI benefits. Those who weren't born in the U.S. must show evidence that they legally live and work in the country with their Alien Registration Number (A-number ) or a work authorization form. Unemployed military members must provide a DD-214 Member Copy 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8. Federal employees must show an SF 8 or SF 50, and those in a union must provide the union's contact information, including name, phone and hall number.
Filing an Initial Claim
An applicant should file their first claim within one week of losing their job to get a prompt response from the DEO regarding their Reemployment Assistance benefits. A payment week always starts on the Sunday before the completion of the claim. Florida allows the completion of claims only online, but applicants who need assistance can call the DEO at 800-681-8102.
Once the applicant files their claim, they will get a confirmation notice. If the DEO accepts the claim, it can take from two to four weeks for the claimant to receive their first payment. The week the claimant files is usually a "waiting" week in which there are no benefits. Applicants who don't get a confirmation notice should call the DEO's Claims Assistance Center at 800-204-2418.
Claimants who want to get their payment via direct deposit should provide their bank information or can request a UI debit card.
Certifying Ongoing UI Claims and Actively Seeking Work
Once a claimant is in the system and has received their first payment, they must continue to certify every two weeks on the DEO's CONNECT system per federal law. In doing so, they must confirm that they are still unemployed and acknowledge their work availability to continue receiving payments. They will also have to report their work search for that period, including the contact information of at least five potential employers.
When certifying, the claimant must be careful to enter the correct information, as any errors may cause a delay in payments or stop them altogether. The quickest way to receive benefits is by direct deposit. If a claimant chooses to get their payments by mail, it will take two to four days longer to reach them.
The CARES Act and Florida UI
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic caused the unemployment of millions. With state UI agencies stretched to the limit, the federal government stepped in to help by creating the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. The CARES Act included various programs, one of which was the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) fund. This made federal benefits available to independent contractors who don't receive UI benefits from their respective states.
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) extended state benefits by an extra 13 weeks. Both programs ended on March 13, 2021, under the Trump administration.
Extensions to Covid-19 Relief Programs
The American Rescue Plan Act passed in Congress at the beginning of March 2021, extending state and federal UI benefits until September 2021. Congress initially provided an extra $600 a week to all UI applicants who lost work because of the pandemic. The program ended on July 25, 2020, but the American Rescue Plan Act added $300 a week to UI, PUA, and PEUC benefits, as much of the population has yet to go back to work.
Also included in the CARES Act were stimulus payments of $2,000 and $600 in March and December 2020. The Biden administration added a stimulus payment of $1,400 through the American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021.
Waived Eligibility Requirements During Covid-19
Since March 15, 2020, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has waived the waiting period that prevented claimants from receiving their first week of benefits. DeSantis also dropped the work search requirement of reporting a minimum of five potential employers per week through April 24, 2021. The state may push this date back at that time.
Claimants must still show availability and answer the DEO's other questions to continue receiving benefits. If they haven't received their payments or the amount looks like it is in error, they should:
- Make sure they have requested eligible weeks.
- Make sure their account information in the CONNECT System is accurate.
- Call the Reemployment Assistance Customer Service Center at 833-FL-APPLY if they have any additional questions.
Reemployment Assistance and Fraud
Any false statements a claimant makes in applying or certifying for weekly benefits or failing to disclose facts pertinent to their UI case is against Florida law. The state considers this a crime of fraud, which is a third-degree felony, leading to serious penalties for the claimant. Examples of fraud are:
- Not reporting earnings while collecting benefits.
- Underreporting earnings while collecting benefits.
- Misrepresenting the reason the claimant lost their job.
If the DEO finds that the claimant committed fraud, they will have to return the overpayment with a 15 percent penalty. The state will not allow them to receive future benefits, with a disqualification imposed from week-to-week, which can last for up to a year. The DEO may also refer the claimant for criminal prosecution, resulting in jail time, restitution, probation or community service hours.
Overpayment of UI Benefits
Overpayment of benefits can be the fault of the claimant or the DEO and can happen at any time. If the agency determines that an overpayment has been made, they will send the claimant a Notice of Determination that states repayment must occur. If a claimant feels this is in error, they can appeal.
Claimants can return overpayments in several ways: By check payable to the DEO mailed to Attn: Benefit Payment Control, P.O. Drawer 5050, Tallahassee, FL 32314-5050, or online by credit card. Claimants who have had their debt sent to collections must send their repayment to the United Collection Bureau (UCB), P.O. Box 1390, Maumee, OH, 43537.
Appealing a Denial of an Unemployment Claim
In some instances, the state may deny a claimant's application. However, they can file an appeal as long as they do it within 20 days of receiving the denial, which will come in the mail. The applicant can file an appeal online or by phone or fax. After the DEO gets the appeal request, it will schedule a hearing via phone and mail to the claimant information they will need beforehand. After the hearing, an appeals referee will mail the decision to the claimant.
If the claimant disagrees with that decision, they can appeal it to the DEO's Unemployment Appeals Commission. As with the first appeal, they must do so within 20 days of receiving the denial. A commissioner will review the appeal decision and make their ruling, which they will send by mail to the claimant. If the claimant disagrees with this decision, they can make their next appeal request to the Florida District Court of Appeal.
Reemployment Assistance Scams
During the coronavirus pandemic, UI scams have been on the rise and come in many forms. For example, a person may claim to be from the DEO and ask for a filing fee or other personal information. False websites that claim to give money or charge for services are also plentiful and may ask for personal information, such as a Social Security number, contact information including an address, a claimant's work history and email.
The DEO will never ask anyone for personal information or ID via text message or email. Claimants who receive requests through these methods should contact the DEO at 833-FL-APPLY.
In some instances, scammers may pretend to offer claimants jobs that don't exist and will request their credit card information in order for hiring to occur. The DEO will not ask claimants for money in this or any fashion. Finally, a claimant may receive a request to answer questions for the DEO in an online survey with the promise of payment to complete it. This is another attempt to get personal information, including the claimant's bank numbers. The DEO will ask only for personal information on its official website and only when a claimant opens or certifies a claim.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.