Expiring $600 has kept Miami-area workers afloat. Turns out, many were lucky to even get that

Rob Wile, Yadira Lopez
·6 min read

When Kendall resident Nick Castillo was laid off in March from a local transportation equipment distributor, he did not imagine that, nearly six months later, he would still be looking for work.

Fast-forward to August: Castillo, who holds a Master of Business Administration, is still searching.

“I’ve applied everywhere — Lowe’s, Amazon, anyone who said they were hiring,” he said. “Nothing.”

Castillo is one of about 600,000 Florida workers — more than one-quarter of them in Miami-Dade and Broward — who have been surviving with the help of Florida’s maximum unemployment assistance. For the past few months, the federal government has added $600 per week to state benefits, which top out at $275 in Florida.

But the $600 federal boost expired last month. And with legal uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump’s executive order for a replacement of $400, hundreds of thousands of Florida workers like Castillo are now asking how they’ll be able to make ends meet.

“It’s been extremely important,” Castillo said. Without it, he and his wife won’t be able to pay their $2,000-a-month mortgage.

Still, Castillo considers himself lucky. His wife has maintained her job in the healthcare sector, so they are not totally financially crippled.

And Castillo, 31, is young and tech-savvy enough for a wide range of jobs, like driving for Uber. He’s also able to navigate Florida’s painfully difficult unemployment filing website.

As it turns out, Castillo is at the top of what might be called South Florida’s unemployment food chain. For countless other Miami workers out of a job, merely applying for and receiving unemployment assistance — as Castillo has done — remains an agonizing process. For these workers, barriers including language, age, family situation, immigration status and in some cases, race, have made the filing process difficult — and finding replacement work nearly impossible.

Looming homelessness

Santra Denis, interim executive director at the Miami Workers Center, a local nonprofit focused on empowering female workers, says most of the roughly 150 domestic workers the center regularly assists aren’t even eligible for unemployment assistance because they are undocumented. The only thing keeping them in their homes is the statewide moratorium on evictions. With many better-off workers now working from home, there is less demand for domestic help.

As a result, jobs for many of her clients have dried up. So they rely on food banks and nonprofit assistance.

“Once [the eviction moratorium] is lifted, we are definitely going to see homelessness,” she said. “These workers are never going to be able to catch up on what they owe.”

Lidia Reque shares their concerns. When schools closed in March, she went from cooking 40 hours a week at a Kendall restaurant to 24 hours so she could care full time for her 11-year-old daughter, who has special needs. The west Miami-Dade resident estimates she’s lost more than $1,200 a month since June. She and her husband have delayed their mortgage payment twice.

Never mind the $600 supplement, said Reque: She’s still awaiting back pay from Florida’s unemployment system, and has received only $700 to date, she said. Her husband is now down to three workdays a week as a restaurant manager. The family has gotten by thanks to food distribution sites that help feed their two children.

“I want to work more hours,” Reque said in Spanish. “But what do I do with my daughter? Where do I leave her when schools are closed and she requires so much attention?”

She’s counting on school kicking back up to once again go full force at work. Losing her home, she said, is unthinkable.

“Who’s going to take me in with two kids?” said Reque. “We have nowhere to go.”

Even before the unemployment boost expired, the state Department of Children and Families experienced a flood of applications for SNAP benefits. Demand for the program commonly referred to as “food stamps” has increased more than 400% since the outset of the pandemic, it said in a statement released last month.

That includes an increase of nearly 250,000 new recipients in Miami-Dade alone; in Florida, 3.8 million residents now receive benefits.

DCF has said 1,300 employees had already been “repurposed” to manage the new load. Payments are being received within an average of two weeks, it said. A department spokesman declined to comment on what might happen now that the $600 jobless benefit has expired.

In the North Miami area served by Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, a nonprofit that serves Kreol- and French-speaking residents, more than 3,000 have applied for unemployment and food stamps, said Leonie Hermantin, director of development. The center helped more than 3,000 area residents from March to July with applications for unemployment and food stamps.

For some of her clients, Hermantin said the loss of the $600 boost won’t matter; they haven’t been able to get even the base amount due to difficulties including navigating the unemployment application process, or meeting documentation requirements.

Hermantin and her team are bracing for the worst. She called the food insecurity situation “extreme” and said increasing numbers of individuals and families are coming to her team for meals on the fly. While those who are eligible for unemployment compensation are still receiving some cash assistance, workers who used to make little more than minimum wage are not eligible for the state’s full $275 per week.

Others have made ends meet by selling food in their communities, or selling used goods, like clothing, to connections in Haiti, Hermantin said.

Shut out

In Tallahassee, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to accept the nominal terms of President Trump’s executive order, which would require Florida to pay $100 of the proposed $400 in new unemployment assistance.

On Tuesday, DeSantis said he was looking into a loan from the U.S. Department of Labor to increase benefits to boost state aid.

But whatever DeSantis decides, it would only help those who have been able to successfully apply for, and receive, benefits in the first place, something that has escaped some workers.

On Tuesday morning, Marie J. Clement was lined up outside the Sant La center hoping to fill out an unemployment form. Through a translator, Clement said she had been laid off from her job in March as a cleaner at a Denny’s in Coral Gables. Because she cannot navigate the state’s unemployment site on her own, Clement must apply for assistance with the help of workers at Sant La. With limited ability to visit the center, she has only received three unemployment checks, she said.

Asked how she had been getting by, Clement simply responded, “Jesus.”

Nearby, Canes Lubin, a lifelong electrician, was waiting for Sant La to open. He has not had steady work since February — but has accessed the state’s unemployment system sparingly.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said in French, adding he often doesn’t receive the full amount he believes he is owed. To make ends meet, he relies on friends and family.

Even as the coronavirus has made finding work difficult for anyone, many construction projects have continued apace in South Florida.

But Lubin says that skilled Black tradesman are largely shut out of job sites.

“We are victims of racism in every circumstance,” he said. “There are Black workers everywhere, but we cannot get hired here,” he said. “There is no work for us.”