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Unemployment agency mishap, the opioid crisis in South Florida, and the artist behind Lilly Pulitzer designs

A display that's part of the exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York celebrates the work of previously little-known fabric designer Suzie Zuzek. This image shows some of the designs and a dress on a mannequin
Matt Flynn
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum: IRR
The exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York celebrates the work of previously little-known fabric designer Suzie Zuzek.

Thousands of Floridians received overpayment notices from the state with minimal information. Also, a discussion on the opioid epidemic in South Florida. Plus, a Key West artist finally gets recognized for designing many Lilly Pulitzer textiles.

On this Tuesday, October 19, edition of Sundial: 

Florida’s unemployment agency wants its overpaid money back

Thousands of Floridians last their jobs as the pandemic ravished multiple industries. Residents started filing for unemployment online, but the system kept crashing, which prevented people from filing claims in a timely manner.

Now, it seems that the state overpaid unemployment benefits to people who didn’t need them. State officials are trying to figure out how to get this money back, after thousands of Floridians received notices stating they must pay the state the money they were given. Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended those debt collections indefinitely.

Lawrence Mower is a reporter for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times in the Tallahassee Bureau, and he’s been covering unemployment in Florida. Mower said no one really knows how much money the state overpaid unemployed residents.

“It’s a constantly changing number and it could be anywhere from hundreds of millions of dollars to billions of dollars,” Mower said.

He said the state’s online unemployment system, Florida Connect Services, is causing most of the current problems. It didn’t follow the usual process of filing for unemployment benefits. People normally have to claim benefits for each week they are not working.

“The first month and a half or so [of the pandemic], Florida was in such a rush to get this money out the door that if you applied for benefits, they just sent you money,” Mower said.

Mower mentioned if you received one of the letters from the state, you can file an appeal through Florida Connect Services or a waiver with the federal government if you owe federal money. You can also contact lawmakers in the state House or Senate.

Florida overpaid unemployment benefits

Opioid epidemic in South Florida

The opioid crisis has plagued millions of cities across the country over the past few decades, and South Florida communities are no exception to the issue. The pandemic has triggered a spike in deaths from opioid use.

According to the 2020 interim report from Florida's medical examiners, deaths caused by opioids increased by 51% in Florida compared to the first six months of 2019. Illicitly-manufactured Fentanyl has caused the most deaths.

WLRN's Caitie Switalski Munoz spoke with Chris Cavallo who lost one of his daughters, Stephanie, and his wife, Robin, to overdoses about 20 years apart. He has since founded an addiction resource nonprofit, The Robin Foundation, in honor of his wife.

“Thirty or forty years ago it was more up to the individual to get the help they needed,” said Cavallo. “But now, the community needs to rally around that individual whether it’s the family members or the addict themselves.”

Maia Szalavitz also joined the conversation. She’s a freelance journalist who covers neuroscience and addiction. She’s also the author of "Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction."

As a recovered opioid addict, Szalavitz understands the pain and isolation many addicts experience. That’s why she advocates harm-reduction approaches.

“I do not believe you can de-stigmatize addiction and criminalize it at the same time,” said Szalavitz. “The focus of our policy should be on making sure people don’t get hurt, not making sure people don’t get high. If you focus on the harm, then you can make policies that don’t do enormous harm while trying to help.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction, you can find help through these local resources:

Opioid epidemic in South Florida

Key West artist behind Lilly Pulitzer fashion

In the 1960s, Lilly Pulitzer revolutionized women’s fashion by focusing on simple shift dresses in wild, whimsical prints. Many of those prints even incorporated her name.

However, those iconic designs were actually created by Key West artist Suzie Zuzek. Her name is finally being publicly credited nearly a decade after her death.

Some of her original designs are on display at the exhibit "Suzie Zuzek for Lilly Pulitzer” at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City until Jan. 2.

You can read the full story by WLRN's Nancy Klingener here and watch a video about the exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum website.

Key West artist behind Lilly Pulitzer fashion

Amber Amortegui is a senior studying journalism at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Born and raised in Davie, Fla., Amber is a native South Floridian who embraces one of America’s most diverse regions.
Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.