DeSantis suspends debt collection for unemployment overpayments “indefinitely”
TALLAHASSEE – Amid the heat of the latest unemployment debacle, Governor Ron DeSantis on Friday ordered the National Unemployment Agency not to send Floridians to debt collectors if they received an “overpayment notice For their unemployment claims.
In recent months, thousands of Floridians who have applied for unemployment benefits have received notices from the Department of Economic Opportunity that they sometimes have to pay back thousands of dollars – or risk being sent to debt collectors.
The reviews have been stressful for Floridians, as newspapers almost never say why the recipient owes the state money or how the amount was calculated. Sometimes notices are sent after the appeal deadline.
The state had previously said it would not send any non-fraudulent overpayment notices to collection agencies until 2023. DeSantis ordered the department on Friday to extend that deadline “indefinitely.”
One of the main reasons the notices are being circulated is that the Department of Economic Opportunity, in its rush to respond to last year’s inquiries, automatically sent money to hundreds of thousands of applicants. This required the recipient to navigate the state’s confusing online unemployment website known as CONNECT and “claim” those weeks of benefits months later. If the recipient hasn’t – often recipients don’t know they need to – they’ve probably received an overpayment notice.
DeSantis’ Friday Order recognized that most Floridians had done nothing wrong.
“At the height of the pandemic, our number one priority was to ensure Floridians received their benefits on a timely basis, and we have focused on reducing paperwork to speed up this process,” his order says. “As a result of this swift response, many claimants, believing that they were fully and accurately requesting re-employment assistance within the limits of the law, received overpayments from the state.”
It is not known exactly how many people received the notices. It is likely that the state does not know. The amount the state has attempted to recover could run into billions of dollars.
State lawmakers this week asked Department of Economic Opportunities Secretary Dane Eagle what he is doing about the notices, and he acknowledged the headaches they are causing to Floridians.
Eagle said reviews are typically generated automatically in CONNECT, and the state is currently working to change the verbiage on the forms to be “more user-friendly.”
State Representative Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the notices were “incredibly frightening” for people facing language barriers.
Florida isn’t alone in experiencing widespread overpayment problems. Recognizing that the problem was “widespread,” the federal government earlier this year allowed recipients to keep federal unemployment funds if they received overpayments through no fault of their own.
DeSantis’ order applies to state, not federal, unemployment benefits due for weeks from March 1, 2020 to September 4, 2021.
DeSantis’ order specifies that only non-fraudulent claims are exempt from being sent to debt collectors.
“To be clear, this request should not apply to fraud-related overpayments, and WD should continue to vigorously investigate fraudulent overpayments and ensure that individuals are held accountable for their fraudulent actions in accordance with to the law, ”he wrote.