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She Volunteered One Day As A Poll Worker. Then Florida Cut Off Her Unemployment Benefits

Krista Poll Worker Unemployment.jpg
Courtesy of Krista
Krista volunteered as a poll worker in Broward County. Then, her unemployment benefits were cut off.

Some states carved out single-day poll workers from being denied unemployment benefits. Florida did not.

After losing her job at a Montessori school in Hollywood, Krista searched far and wide for another job as she collected unemployment benefits for the first time in her life.

And then in the lead up to the November elections, she took notice that elections supervisors from across the state were desperate for poll workers. Elderly residents, who tend to work the jobs, were opting not to do so because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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It was a one-day gig, plus a few hours of training. Her compensation: $250.

What Krista didn’t know was that the single day of work would stop the unemployment checks from coming, and leave her in a precarious financial situation.

“You go online every two weeks to claim your benefits, and I was just going on as I regularly do, and it said ‘We see you’ve returned to work.’ And I’m like ‘What? I didn’t return to work,’” said Krista, who asked that her last name not be used.

The last unemployment check she received was over a month ago, she said.

WLRN verified Krista’s employment status. A Nov. 13 letter from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity said that the state was notified that she began work with the Broward Supervisor of Elections office in October, when Krista received poll worker training.

“Your benefits have been temporarily suspended pending an investigation,” reads the letter.

Floridians receive up to $275 weekly in unemployment benefits while they are eligible. Before being cut off, Krista was receiving the full amount, she said.

Some states, like New Jersey, have explicit laws that say that working the polls for one day does not make someone ineligible for benefits. North Carolina lawmakers passed one of those laws this year, in recognition that many poll workers might be unemployed during a historic economic downturn.

In March, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order exempting poll workers from losing their unemployment benefits, so long as they made under $504 during a single week of work.

Florida has no such law or executive order.

“I’ve gone through savings already, I didn’t have much. But I’ve gone through that. I’m just relying on family and friends mostly to help me,” Krista said.

Krista said she was simply unaware that the one day of poll work could disqualify her from state benefits, and is asking the state to fix the “glitch” in its system. Technically, poll workers are volunteers who receive up to a $250 “stipend” for their services.

At first she was proud of working at the polls on election day. The Broward County Supervisor of Elections office gave her a coin pouch that read: "I was an Essential Broward County Election Worker During COVID-19."

But if she knew the consequences, she would not have volunteered as a poll worker, she said.

Krista has repeatedly tried to call the Department of Economic Opportunity to address the situation, but she said it has been impossible to get help. The state agency has been notoriously busy and inundated with complaints, following technological glitches and the widespread failure of its unemployment portal earlier this year.

“I’d like this glitch to be fixed so it doesn’t happen to anyone in the future. But now they should do something, they should go through the system and say ‘let’s flag everyone that got pinged from any supervisor of elections in Florida and take these cases and look at them,’” said Krista.

It’s not just the state benefits that concern her. Krista worries that any federal benefits that could come out of a new federal stimulus package might be denied to her if she continues to be listed as employed when she is not. That can amount to thousands of dollars of lost benefits.

The Department of Economic Opportunity told WLRN that it crossmatches Floridians with the National Database of New Hire tool — which is run by the federal government — to determine if someone has returned to work. The office has sent Krista’s case to be reviewed, but said it cannot do a blanket review of all Floridians who recently volunteered as poll workers.

“Each claim must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and the Department is working diligently to review all claims,” spokesperson Paige Landrum told WLRN in an email.

Ever since she has been out of work, Krista has been volunteering at places like Feeding South Florida to get out of the house and do something constructive with her time. The unemployment benefits held her just enough above water where she didn’t need the food herself. But as her economic situation gets worse, she sees more of herself in the people lining up for assistance.

“What I say is the next food line I might just be taking it home with me while I’m handing it out,” she said. “It’s not a lot of money, but it’s hard to be without that.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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