DeSantis suspends debt collections for unemployment overpayments ‘indefinitely’

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TALLAHASSEE — Facing criticism over the latest unemployment debacle, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday ordered the state’s jobless agency not to send Floridians to debt collectors if they’ve been issued an “overpayment” notice for their unemployment claims.

In the last several months, thousands of Floridians who filed for unemployment benefits have been mailed notices from the Department of Economic Opportunity stating they must pay back sometimes thousands of dollars — or face being sent to debt collectors.

The notices have been stressful for Floridians because the papers almost never say why the recipient owes the state money, or how the amount was calculated. Sometimes the notices are sent out after the deadline to appeal them.

The state had already said it wouldn’t send any non-fraudulent overpayment notices to collection agencies before 2023. DeSantis on Friday ordered the department to extended that deadline “indefinitely.”

One of the main reasons why the notices are going out is because Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, in its haste to fulfill claims last year, automatically sent money to hundreds of thousands of applicants. That 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 didn’t do that — often the recipients don’t know they need to do it — they were likely sent an overpayment notice.

DeSantis’ order on Friday acknowledged that most Floridians did nothing wrong.

“During the height of the pandemic, our number one priority was to ensure Floridians received their benefits on a timely basis, and we focused on reducing red tape to speed up that process,” his order states. “As result of providing this swift response, many claimants, believing they were fully and accurately applying for Reemployment Assistance within the bounds of the law, received overpayments from the state.”

Just how many people have been issued the notices is unclear. It’s likely the state doesn’t know. The amount the state has been trying to claw back could be in the billions of dollars.

State lawmakers this week asked Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle what he was doing about the notices, and he acknowledged the headaches they were causing for Floridians.

Eagle said the notices are usually automatically generated within CONNECT, and state officials were working on changing the verbiage on the forms to be “more friendly.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said the notices have been “incredibly scary” for people who face language barriers.

Florida is not unique in experiencing widespread overpayment problems. Acknowledging the problem was “widespread,” the federal government earlier this year allowed recipients to keep federal unemployment dollars if they received the overpayments through no fault of their own.

DeSantis’ order applies to state, not federal, unemployment benefits owed for weeks beginning March 1, 2020, through September 4, 2021.

DeSantis’ order clarifies that only non-fraudulent claims are exempt from being sent to debt collectors.

“To be clear, this request must not apply to overpayments related to fraud, and DEO must continue to vigorously investigate fraudulent overpayments and ensure individuals be held accountable for their fraudulent actions in accordance with the law,” he wrote.

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