People who need unemployment assistance after Hurricane Irma might not be getting the help that is available to them.
While there have been thousands of people in long lines to get disaster food assistance, there have been far fewer numbers applying for a program called Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA).
The deadline to apply is Oct. 31 and so far only 14,000 South Floridians have received help from DUA, 32,000 in the entire state.
Daniel Rowinsky, staff attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami, spoke with WLRN’s Wilson Sayre about what he has seen over the past few weeks as he has tried to help people through the application process for DUA.
Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation:
WLRN: What's the point of the Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program [DUA]? What is that for?
ROWINSKY: So basically the purpose of the program to assist individuals or workers who cannot work because of a disaster. Normally, what will happen is if you are eligible for unemployment benefits the law requires you to get those benefits first. So someone who is employed and gets laid off because of the hurricane because the place of work was destroyed or they couldn’t worked for weeks because the place where they work has been destroyed is going to get regular unemployment benefits.
The DUA [Disaster Unemployment Assistance] program is for example, self-employed individuals or individuals who normally would not qualify for these kind of benefits because a self-employed individual is not eligible for employment assistance benefits because they are not employed by an employer.
So basically it will be people who no longer have a job, is unable to reach their place of work, cannot work due to damage to the place of work. But the majority of people who qualify for this program because of Irma are those who were self-employed.
If you apply and you get approved, what kind of assistance are we talking about?
They can pay up to $275 per week for 26 weeks.
The numbers that the state has released of the number of applications they've accepted and approved for assistance are pretty low. What do you read into that?
Yeah, they are extremely low. I think that the last number that we got was 27,000 across the state [that number is up to 32,000 as of 10/25]. For a state as big as Florida, that’s a really low number. Just looking at the number, there is a serious issue in terms of how people apply for that benefit.
What I noticed though is when I went to meet with individuals we notice that most of the people were unaware that this program existed.
So the application has been giving people some trouble. What goes into the application and what are some of the challenges that you have seen when it comes to this specific program?
So Florida for a couple of years now has its own platform where people can apply for benefits online. That had issues in the past, but they have been mostly fixed. What appears to be the major problem at this time is that it seems that the platform wasn't really prepared for this kind of assistance or this kind of program. So what we see with our clients is that they are not able to properly file a DUA claim. And we cannot do it online. When they call the number, they don't get to talk to anyone because so many people are calling that they wait for hours and hours and hours without being able to talk to a representative to file a claim on the phone, which is a way that they can also file a claim.
Given the problems on the online portal and having people sit by the phones and not be able to get a representative on the phone, what does this tell you about the larger preparedness of the state for fulfilling this assistance program?
Well it’s lacking, definitely lacking, because we live in a state that has the chance of being hit by a hurricane every year. So you would think that a state such as Florida would have something prepared in advance. But what is clear from the platform is that it's not really tailor-made for these kinds of situations, which is kind of worrying. That's something we're looking to fix for future events like this.