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Some laid-off workers in the county getting unemployment benefits; others still waiting


Unemployment checks have started flowing to some laid-off workers in Indian River County, but others have languished without benefits since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the state economy in mid-March.

Several laid-off Indian River County residents told Vero Beach 32963 they started receiving weekly payments of $247 in regular state unemployment benefits and $600 per week under federal Pandemic Unemployment programs.

But the state Department of Economic Opportunity and Indian River County’s state lawmakers were unable to provide statistics showing how many county residents are collecting unemployment.

“We have no way of knowing specifically how many have started to receive benefits, but we’ve heard that some have,” said state Rep. Erin Grall (R-Vero Beach).

Jo Anne Miller, who was laid off from her project manager job with Rod Mickley Interiors on April 6, said she filed for unemployment right away, but didn’t receive her first payment until a check came in the mail April 27.

“I was very happy to get a check because that meant I was now in the system,” Miller said Thursday. “I was very thankful because I know how much trouble a lot of people are having.”

In the past two weeks, Miller said she received a second $247 payment, this time, via direct deposit, as well as three direct deposits of $600 each, all from the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

Miller and other laid-off workers from Indian River County said they were not sure the state accepted their unemployment applications until a check came in the mail or a deposit registered in their bank account.

Caitlyn McMinn of Vero Beach, who was laid off her job as a Bonefish Grill server in mid-March, said the uncertainty about whether the state approved her application was nerve-wracking.

“Everything was sitting in the air until one day you check your bank account on your phone and it’s just there,” McMinn said. “It was kind of surprising because I didn’t receive anything in the mail, or actually talk to anyone. It just automatically was deposited into my account, which was really helpful.”

McMinn and Miller were among the fortunate laid-off workers in Indian River County who received unemployment benefits from the state DEO’s overwhelmed system.

Indian River County residents filed 2,875 initial unemployment claims as of Friday, May 8, the DEO web site says. But it doesn’t say how many claims have been approved, or the amount of money paid out.

The hospitality industry suffered the greatest job losses in Indian River County with 696 workers filing unemployment claims, DEO records show. Another 570 claimants listed no industry.

Healthcare and social workers in Indian River County filed 325 unemployment claims, and retail workers filed 299 claims. Another 180 claims were filed by county residents providing other services and 141 by those in arts, entertainment and recreation.

Statewide, nearly 1.3 million unique unemployment claims were submitted as of May 8, the DEO website says. DEO had processed 849,088 claims, or about 66 percent, while 434,226 remained in the verification queue, according to the website.

DEO paid a total of $1.2 billion to 531,702 claimants between March 15 and May 8.

Several restaurant owners in Vero Beach said just a handful of the workers they laid off in March have been able to collect unemployment.

Kitty Wagner, owner of Blue Star restaurant in downtown Vero Beach, said two of the 12 workers she laid off in mid-March have received unemployment after two months of effort.

“It’s really a bad batting average,” Wagner said. “We’re on week 9 here.”

“The employees with the unemployment problems are really frustrated,” Wagner said. “After this length of time, there’s a psychological toll because now they’re feeling helpless and hopeless.”

Wagner said she planned to reopen Blue Star for dinner Wednesday and resume a Wednesday through Sunday schedule.

Many laid-off restaurant workers – who are returning to their jobs as the state and local governments lift restrictions – are still chasing their uncollected unemployment benefits, said Linda Moore, owner of the Kilted Mermaid in downtown Vero Beach. The restaurant reopened Monday, May 4, mainly for outdoor dining and takeout.

“None of my employees ever did get unemployment,” Moore said. “They all applied. My kids have tried to apply online. They’ve even sent in paper applications. And nobody has heard anything.

“Everybody tries every day,” Moore said. “They’re all still aggressively trying to get unemployment because the state of Florida owes them six weeks. That could be a significant chunk of change, so no one is giving up.”

A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan enabled Moore to bring back her workers, at least for eight weeks.

DEO issued a news release May 6 saying it is conducting nightly maintenance on the unemployment system to process claims and payments, but did not respond to specific questions from Vero Beach 32963.

Grall and State Sen. Debbie Mayfield (D-Vero Beach) said they’ve been trying to help hundreds of constituents obtain unemployment benefits from DEO.

“We are submitting specific issues to DEO on their behalf for resolution,” Mayfield said.

DEO told Mayfield the majority of the applicants who have not been approved for benefits either did not provide all the required information or are ineligible.

An erroneous birthdate, Social Security number or address can delay the process.

Grall said her office has submitted more than 100 constituent inquiries to DEO about their specific issues.

“More and more people are starting to receive benefits on a daily basis,” Grall said. “The DEO is challenged to fix a system while also trying to keep it functioning at the same time."