On Tuesday morning, Patrick Gonzalez received an email notifying him that he was eligible for unemployment benefits amounting to $98 per week. What’s more, the Miami Beach resident said, he had accrued about $1,200 since filing his claim in mid-March, around the time the national coronavirus lockdown kicked into gear.
By Thursday afternoon, however, he was hitting bottom.
“Today, I spoke to the unemployment office and I was told it’s inactive,” Gonzalez told The Daily Beast of his claim. “Now I have to call another number to get it active again. I have to keep calling until I find someone.” (Paige Landrum, a Florida Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast, “If you were eligible and marked inactive, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is reviewing these applications.”)
Around the same time that conversation took place on Thursday, the U.S. Labor Department announced 3.8 million new jobless claims, bringing the six-week coronavirus lockdown total to over 30 million.
But many Americans continue to struggle to file for relief at all, even as conservative politicians suggest the pandemic has made it way too easy to mooch off the state. In fact, as mostly GOP governors ease lockdowns, the benefits many workers haven’t been able to access in the first place are in peril.
In Florida, the Department of Economic Opportunity has denied more than 267,000 people of unemployment benefits, or a staggering 40.3 percent of all claims processed since March 15. On Wednesday, the Sunshine State hit the two million mark for filed unemployment claims, as another 86,000 people applied for benefits.
Among them is Marco Kornfeld, a wine tasting brand ambassador who hasn’t worked since the Publix grocery chain stopped allowing events in stores in early March.
Kornfeld, who is considered a gig worker/independent contractor, said he spent weeks trying to file for unemployment only to be denied in mid-April. He has since reapplied through a new website the Department of Economic Opportunity set up for gig workers like him, Kornfeld said.
“I put my trust in the government, but Gov. Ron DeSantis is not doing Florida any favors,” Kornfeld said. “The feeling is that they are trying to discourage people. The regular person, after the fourth or fifth time trying, will say, ‘Fuck it. I am tired of this bullshit.’ The state government’s intention is not to give any money.”
Landrum, the Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman, did not directly address these criticisms, but provided The Daily Beast with guidelines on how gig workers can now apply for unemployment benefits. A DeSantis spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
“Many of the individuals that were deemed ineligible this weekend may be eligible for federal benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program,” Landrum said. “There are numerous reasons someone could be deemed ineligible for state reemployment assistance benefits, including wage base period issues, lack of wage history, multiple claims in one year, separation circumstances, incomplete applications, among others.”
Gonzalez suspects the state government, led by DeSantis, is banking on not having to fulfill obligations to unemployed workers as Florida moves to begin reopening on May 4. His Republican counterparts in Iowa and Texas, other states that are reopening, have warned workers that they will lose their benefits if they refuse to go back to work even if they are scared about getting COVID-19.
“I figured this would happen,” Gonzalez said. “They will postpone payments and by the time the system is up, the stay-at-home order will expire. If people can go to work, they will get cut off from their unemployment benefits.”(Gonzalez’s county of Miami-Dade—along with Palm Beach and Broward counties, all COVID-19 hot spots—is being kept under more aggressive lockdown as exceptions to the statewide push to reopen, at least for now.)
Landrum would not respond to Gonzalez’s criticisms, but top Republicans in his state are under the impression that being out of work with the promise of a government check every week will create a population of subsidized freeloaders. During a Wednesday appearance on Fox and Friends, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said that jobless benefits are so attractive that employers will have a tough time getting their employees to return to work.
“A lot of people are having trouble re-hiring workers because the workers are saying to them, ‘I’m making more on unemployment,’” Rubio said. Earlier this week, Rubio’s fellow Florida senator and former governor, Rick Scott, tweeted, “If given the chance to make more on a government program than in a job, some will make the rational and reasonable decision to delay going back to work, hampering our economic recovery.” A recent Wall Street Journal report captured some of the facts used to make this logical leap with the headline: Coronavirus Relief Often Pays Workers More Than Work, detailing bosses’ fears that workers have no reason to come back.
In Florida, a person deemed eligible for unemployment can receive up to $275 a week and another $600 weekly through the federal government’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Gonzalez said he was earning between $400 to $800 weekly as the DJ and video technician for The Venue Fort Lauderdale, a ballroom event space that closed down on March 15, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance to avoid mass gatherings such as conferences, parades, sporting events, and weddings.
After several unsuccessful attempts to log on to the Florida unemployment benefits system, he was able to submit his application on March 19 around 3 a.m., Gonzalez said. “I was lucky to apply before the mad rush,” he said. “A week later, no one could get in because the website kept crashing.” Stories like that one have been inescapable in recent weeks, as many state unemployment systems—set up to ward out fraud, rather than provide relief—have buckled.
While waiting for his claim to be approved, Gonzalez was not exactly living the high life. He applied and received a food stamp card from the Florida Department of Children and Families that provides him with $196 a month for his groceries. In the past six weeks, he has gone to five food drives, waking up around 6 a.m. each time to wait in the lines, he told The Daily Beast.
“My mom, who is a truck driver, has been sending money to help me out until I receive my benefits or go back to work,” he said. “I’d rather work, of course.”
In fact, Gonzalez said, he recently landed a gig to put on a live streaming event at a hotel in downtown Fort Lauderdale for next weekend. That involves traveling there in person, and potentially some personal exposure, but he felt little choice.
“I got to figure out some way to make money,” he said.