Florida's Unemployment 'Dream Team' Helps 50K Tackle a Broken System
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because hundreds of thousands of people are not getting the money they're owed.
By Joshua Eferighe
- A network of women across Florida are helping tens of thousands of people navigate the state’s notoriously bad unemployment system.
- Their fight is about to get tougher with the state implementing a new system and unemployment still stubbornly high.
It’s late spring and Laura Tweed is sitting atop her Harley Davidson motorcycle pounding away on her phone as if it’s a laptop as she drafts a list of grievances to Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). The 55-year-old insurance agent was accompanied by Aimee Matz, 51, a bartender, and Tami Bohm, 55, a corporate compliance officer. After months of meetings on Zoom, Matz and Bohm decided to drive from their respective parts of the Sunshine State to better merge their ideas in person.
The result? A document called “The 24 Atrocities,” outlining the nightmares Floridians must endure to receive money that was promised to them from the state. “This just makes me sick. I can’t believe all the problems,” Tweed recalls thinking at the time. “It’s just the three of us from six-something at night till three-something in the morning, and I’m like ‘Can you believe we have 24 just sitting here that we can name off the top of our heads?’”
Since then, banding together with other volunteers across the state, they’ve helped more than 50,000 unemployed Floridians by troubleshooting their cases, walking them through the process on Zoom calls, compiling lists of contacts in the state’s byzantine bureaucracy and even throwing some political muscle around. Their fans started calling them the “Dream Team” of Florida’s benefits system. “I fight for the underdogs,” says Tweed, who has volunteered for years to help chronically or terminally ill veterans get benefits. “If I see something that’s not right, I say, that’s BS. Let’s fix this.”
Word quickly spread on social media that these women were getting results.
Tweed and her allies have chosen a formidable target. One aide to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis called Florida’s unemployment system “a shit sandwich,” engineered by the prior Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who’s now in the U.S. Senate, to save money rather than serve as a safety net — and it succeeded in reducing the unemployment taxes paid by Florida businesses. By 2015, just 18.7 percent of short-term unemployed Floridians actually received benefits — the fourth-lowest mark in the country.
This is due in large part to the maddening architecture of the system. The unemployment assistance website, CONNECT, is dated and anything but user-friendly. “Until the pandemic, most people were only allowed to file claims electronically,” says Cindy Huddleton, an attorney who specializes in public assistance programs and a senior policy analyst at the Florida Policy Institute. “That created a lot of problems for people who are not technologically savvy or don’t have access to computers.”
And let’s just say you make it through all the hoops and actually get a check. Floridians are not only receiving one of the lowest weekly payouts in the country, at $275, but in the shortest window too: 12 weeks, compared to 26 weeks in most states. But now that COVID-19 has leveled the unemployment playing field, the issue has suddenly become a priority for state leaders.
In the spring, DeSantis responded to the unemployment surge by temporarily contracting for thousands of call-takers and waiving the requirement that applicants prove they’re looking for a job. But many still haven’t gotten anything since the pandemic started.
The state has seen an unprecedented wave of unemployment applicants: 3.4 million unique claims since March, of which it’s paid out nearly 1.9 million. The state says it’s paid out 95 percent of eligible claimants, while the rest are not eligible for the money.
But in many cases, the “Dream Team” found, applicants were simply never told what documentation they had to send — often by fax, as if this were 1995. So they coach people on whether they need to send their driver’s license, wage documentation or something else, and push back against denied claims.
The quest began with Tweed’s own struggles with the system. Raised in Orlando (her father was a truck driver), she’s called Florida home for most of her life. A longtime insurance agent, she filed for unemployment benefits for the first time in March and her application “fell into a deep dark hole of nothing.” She eventually found out that the state was waiting on a response from her employer … even though she was self-employed.
Tweed traveled to the state capital Tallahassee for a drive-around rally to protest the broken system. She got involved with unemployment groups online and started connecting with a network of women around the state who became the Dream Team. Word quickly spread on social media that these women were getting results. Tweed, who in her rare spare moments enjoys fishing and boating, describes her role as a project manager, making sure people with the right expertise tackle claims that suit them.
Among them is Vanessa Brito, 37, a political strategist in Miami, who connects two to three times per week with people seeking benefits. She deploys her political connections to bring in people like state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, to escalate claims, while investing hours and days to produce the DEO agent email lists and telephone directories to help claimants find the right person to contact.
But her real fear is what comes next. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order extending extra federal unemployment benefits comes with a twist — it requires states to set up a new system to administer the payments. “Without training, access and increased personnel, I am concerned about how the state will handle the implementation of a new ‘loss of wages’ program as mandated by the president’s executive order,” Brito says.
And who got the $135 million state contract to administer the new program? Deloitte, the same consultancy that set up the original dysfunctional system. “You can’t fix stupid,” Tweed says.
The Dream Team may need to recruit some reinforcements.