State keeps quiet on help to get federal LWA payments owed to unemployed

Reporter: Sara Girard Writer: Jackie Winchester
Published: Updated:

If you’re on unemployment in Florida and never received your Lost Wages Assistance from the federal government, this could be why.

WINK News obtained documents from the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity discussing the federal assistance those on unemployment can get for weeks claimed in August. Except call takers at the DEO’s customer service centers are told not to tell claimants about the form, unless they have a specific reason.

Darlene Felker of Punta Gorda knew something was wrong when, after the state began distributing LWA payments in September, she didn’t get hers. Now, WINK News has the internal documents to show the DEO wasn’t forthcoming with helping people who were eligible but didn’t get paid.

FEMA approved Florida for four weeks of $300 in LWA to go to eligible unemployed people. People collecting benefits had to meet certain requirements to qualify, and Felker says she met them all.

“Those $300 should have been released,” Felker said.

She had her suspicions, thinking she didn’t get paid because one of the questions she had to answer she feels was misleading. That question is “are you currently unemployed?”

“I specifically called DEO, I was told to put ‘no’ because I am working, I’m just working 8-10 hours a week, 16 hours at the most,” Felker said, who’s partially unemployed.

Under the eligibility requirements listed by the state, it says, “Floridians who are eligible for state or federal Reemployment Assistance benefits, are unemployed or partially unemployed due to COVID-19 and have a weekly benefit amount of at least $100 in a state or Federal Reemployment Assistance program may be eligible to receive the additional $300 LWA benefits.”

WINK News brought her situation to the DEO back in September and a representative said “this is a non-issue.”

But three weeks later, WINK News got a tip about something the DEO was keeping quiet. A public records request revealed internal documents showing an email dated Oct. 5, where the DEO told its call center employees in part:

“A new form has been created […] for those claimants calling in stating they answered incorrectly to the question regarding COVID-19 while requesting benefits for the weeks ending 08/01/20-08/22/20. This form will be used internally, please do not volunteer to complete this form for anyone calling regarding the Lost Wage Assistance payments, the claimant specifically has to indicate they answered the question incorrectly. Also, this form will only be available for the duration of time the department has available funding for the Lost Wage Assistance program (LWA).”

That means people calling in to the DEO have to specifically say they answered a question wrong to get help.

Felker said had she not known she’d answered a question wrong, she would’ve thought she wasn’t eligible for the money.

After WINK News questioned the DEO about the existence of these instructions, they sent out a press release on Oct. 9, saying people need to call if they think there are errors in their application, not once did it mention Lost Wages Assistance.

“It tripped all these people up that are not getting that money, it’s crazy,” Felker said.

It took more than a dozen calls and several faxes to the DEO, but last week, Felker finally got the $1,200 owed to her.

“You just have to be persistent on calling and speaking to a supervisor and letting them know that you’re aware of this form,” Felker said.

WINK News on Monday asked the DEO why they kept it internal, a representative did not address that question. However, DEO did confirm there is still LWA funding available.

For ongoing updates on unemployment, follow WINK News Investigative Reporter Sara Girard on Twitter and Facebook.

She also updates the WINK News FAQ: Unemployment Resources page as information is received.

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