It’s taken weeks and gotten her virtually nowhere, but Carol Tedesco isn’t giving up on trying to claim unemployment benefits.

And she’s not alone. 

Since the beginning of April, Key West’s Carol Tedesco has compiled eight pages of notes (5,000 words) documenting her attempts to receive unemployment benefits. The self-employed gig worker — photographer and publicist — has struggled to complete the forms necessary for what’s called the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits that are part of the federal CARES Act. She’s chronicled system crashes and call center employees who can’t help. 

Tedesco said she started taking notes early on and first applied for unemployment on April 8. In Florida, the self-employed first have to be denied for state benefits before they can apply for federal unemployment benefits through the state portal.  

So far, she’s received $1,200. In a perfect world, she would have received $5,250.

“It wasn’t long before I realized how dysfunctional it all was. In the beginning, I thought it was a database issue. Now, I’m seeing it as a combination of database issues, incompetence and smoke-and-mirror tactics,” Tedesco said. 

On April 15, Gov. Ron DeSantis named a new director of the unemployment system, separating its management from the rest of the state Department of Economic Opportunity. At the time, he called the current system “unacceptable” and spent $120 million to fix it, some on hardware but the lion’s share on call center contracts to handle the volume. On May 18, the governor backtracked and said 9 out of 10 applicants who haven’t received benefits have made a mistake on their application.

Yet, the numbers tell a different story. According to a report by Volusion (a small business consulting firm), Florida has the 4th highest percentage of self-employed workers in the U.S. — 140,508 are self employed. On its dashboard, the state reports that 105,000 PUA claims have been processed and 62,000 PUA claimants have been paid as of May 20. 

Tedesco said she knows some self-employed workers who were able to collect one or two payments before the system “reset,” but none who have received everything to which they are legally entitled. While she received a direct deposit of two $600 payments, the system shows she has two debit cards headed her way (“I have no idea when I’ll get them”) for $125 each. The latest glitch, she said, was that self-employed applicants had to provide pay stubs “showing taxes.” 

“What freelancer gets checks showing taxes? I suspect none do,” she said. “While our pantry is in good shape, we still have to pay our rent and other monthly bills; I’ve paid taxes since I was 15 years old and shouldn’t have to fight tooth and nail for federal benefits that are there, but are being mishandled by the state.”

Jennifer Miller, an unemployed Realtor in the Upper Keys, has had completely the opposite experience. 

“When the state advised everyone to reapply, I did. Since then I’ve been receiving state and federal benefits. The only reason I can think why I was successful is because my real estate company is a limited liability corporation (LLC),” Miller said. “But there’s no rhyme or reason.”

Miller went on to say that her daughter, who was employed as a bartender in Tallahassee — a regular employee who has W2’s to show her income — hasn’t been successful in obtaining unemployment benefits. 

Oh, but that’s not all. A mysterious $1,000 was also deposited into her account. She suspects it’s a state economic disaster injury loan. 

“I never got one email like, ‘Hey, congratulations you’ve been approved. Really, there’s no explanation,” she said about the program that touted “up to” $10,000 in three days. “It was actually more like $1,000 in three or four weeks.”

As part of the May 18 press conference, Gov. Desantis noted that the state of Florida has paid $2 billion in economic claims — $1.2 billion in federal CARES Act funds and $840 million in state funds. The Tampa Tribune reported that the big number is actually not as impressive as in other states: “Michigan, with a population less than half Florida’s size, has paid out $5.6 billion. California … has paid out $11.1 billion in state benefits, but just $1.2 billion in federal benefits.”

Tedesco said she is starting a new regimen. 

“I’m going to keep trying to apply for PUA but I am going to do it a little bit more systematically. Rather than just telling myself ‘I’ll only spend an hour’ and then falling down a rabbit hole, I am going to take action and then wait a few days,” said Tedesco, adding she thinks she’s finally in touch with state employees who can help. “But it can’t be my focus anymore. I’m taking two classes this week — one to learn how to be a Covid-19 Contact ‘tracer.’ But there are other people who can’t feed their children. There are so many people being … just … destroyed.”  

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