Miami Dade County is home to approximately 1.3 million workers. Yet somehow, more than a month after Hurricane Irma struck, only 4,892 Miamians have received Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) for missed days of work caused by the event.
The numbers are even more absurd statewide: a little more than 27,000 successful DUA applicants out of more than nine million employed individuals, many of whom, it is safe to assume, missed multiple days of work as a result of the storm.
“It kind of makes you think there’s a problem when two million people have applied for FEMA and only 20,000 or so have applied for DUA,” says Cindy Huddleston, an attorney with Florida Legal Services in Tallahassee.
What’s the problem? The online portal designed to process the claims, a site that is federally funded but run by the state, has proven almost useless in allowing people to apply.
Jennifer Hill of the Miami Workers Center says the state never created a separate online application for handling disaster unemployment claims, as opposed to regular unemployment claims. So anyone who is self-employed, for instance, and tried to file using the current system would immediately get kicked out.
She says that of the 20 locals she saw attempt to apply, only one succeeded in obtaining benefits — and that was after an official from the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which oversees the aid, was called in to help.
“It’s hilarious and also horrifying, all the ways it screws up,” Hill says.
She says service industry workers, such as nursing-home staff, hotel workers, dishwashers, daycare employees, and even Uber drivers, are most in need of the assistance because they might have lost up to a week in wages.
Even if they lost one or two days, “that’s a big deal for people who are really living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Hill says.
The state also did little to promote the program or let workers know it was an option, says Daniel Rowinsky of Legal Services Miami. “When we see them for other problems, we ask them about DUA, and most said they didn’t even know about it,” Rowinsky says.
The state was already dealing with DUA issues when it woke up to thousands of people lining up for food benefits through D-SNAP, the Department of Children and Families’ Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
To these concerns the state sent the following response: "DEO is committed to assisting those who were affected or unable to work due to Irma by providing DUA benefits and reemployment services. Our goal is to be able to assist these individuals within the extended deadline and have utilized our website, www.floridajobs.org, and our social media pages to publicize information about the program and link to the application."
State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez said he had heard the DUA figures were low but expressed shock upon hearing how few people had applied. But he wasn’t surprised, he added.
“That seems to fit with our trajectory of having the worst [unemployment] laws and benefits.”
Perhaps recognizing the problem it had on its hands, the state finally agreed to extend the deadline to apply for the benefits until the end of the month; the original deadline was October 9. Anyone who meets the eligibility requirements, including people who are self-employed, can receive up to $275 per week for a maximum of 26 weeks through March 2018.
However, six weeks have already passed since Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency September 4.
Clarification: The DEO's response to critics was mistakenly not included in the original draft of this story. It has been added.