Some First Coast Residents Denied Benefits Believe They’re Eligible

May 22, 2020

As Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to tout improvements to Florida’s unemployment system, some First Coast applicants who believe they qualify for assistance are being told they’re not eligible.

People who are self-employed, gig workers, and those who operate short-term vacation rentals don’t qualify for Florida’s typical $275 weekly unemployment benefits. However, they do qualify for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which is administered by the state.

Will Howery, 61, and his wife, Sinda Nichols, are artisans who live and run an Airbnb on Amelia Island. Nichols works part-time at a bookstore and does theater while Howery makes violins.

Usually around this time of year, their short term vacation rental brings in around $2,000 a month, making up for about half of their income. But Gov. DeSantis closed all vacation rentals in March. 

On top of that, Nichols hasn’t been working at the bookstore and all theater performances have been cancelled due to the coronavirus.

Howery still gets some business, but certainly not as much as he used to.

“I'm still making violins, because they take a long time to make, but I've only had a couple of bow rehairs. Nobody comes through and I have to quarantine instruments and all that stuff before I work on them,” he explained.

Howery applied for unemployment benefits on April 5. On May 13 he got a letter from the Department of Economic Opportunity saying he was ineligible because he had no Florida wages. He has since sent an email to appeal that decision, but as of Friday he has not heard back.

Nichols, on the other hand, was approved and is expecting her first check soon.

Shelby Trevor, 33, is a musician who lives in Fernandina Beach. He makes his money gigging and giving music lessons.

But those sources of income have pretty much dried up during the pandemic.

“I've virtually lost at least 80% of all the work and income I have had,” he said.

Trevor first applied for unemployment a few days after his last gig, which was on March 14. Due to issues with the site, it took him a while to get the application done.

Once it was submitted, he waited weeks and made dozens of unanswered phone calls before he was finally deemed ineligible.

Gov. DeSantis said on Tuesday of the nearly 1.6 million unique applications that have been submitted to the state since March 15, about 469,000 have been deemed ineligible for unemployment benefits in the state.

“We’re going back through that queue and trying to find people the benefits that they are eligible for,” said Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter, who Gov. DeSantis has tasked with resolving the problems that have plagued the state’s unemployment system. 

But, he warned, “At the end of the day, there’s going to be a large pool of folks who are just not eligible for a variety of reasons.”

Of the 469,000 or so claims the state said weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, close to 98,000 have already been deemed eligible for PUA. But as of Friday, Trevor and Howery’s ineligible status hasn’t changed.

“I know that more needs to be done, and we're going to continue to work with people to be able to get more done,” Gov. DeSantis said.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.