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Unemployment System Making Progress

May 5th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is making progress paying unemployment claims, but the system remains far from perfect.

The outcry is continuing over unpaid claims.

One out of nine working Floridians has now filed for unemployment as the number of unique claims tops one million.

Since April 15th when new leadership took over, 438,000 claims have been paid.

That’s ten times more than in the previous four weeks.

“The numbers are starting to look much better,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

But the number of claims paid amounts to just under 46 percent of the unique claims submitted.

“The two main issues that were causing complaints are pin problems and the unavailability of a link for certain claim weeks,” said former DEO Director Jesse Panuccio.

That quote is from 2013, but it still rings true with users today.

Now, the Governor has ordered his inspector general to investigate why the system costs so much and delivers so little.

“The total amount of costs were $77.9 million. The contract was amended 14 different times during this,” said DeSantis.

In a written statement, Deloitte who contracted with the state for the system told us:

”Florida is a state in which Deloitte has made significant investments to strengthen the economy and contribute to the communities in which thousands of our professionals live and work. We care deeply about our Florida clients and the people they serve. We built the CONNECT system to comply with Florida’s specific requirements and the state accepted the system. When we completed our work in 2015, CONNECT was vastly outperforming the systems it replaced and accurately processing reemployment assistance claims faster than ever before. All IT systems require ongoing maintenance, and since Deloitte has not worked on CONNECT in five years, we do not know how, or even if, the technology has been maintained. What we do know is that other IT systems we developed are performing well during this unprecedented surge in demand, and we are currently working collaboratively with several states to provide critical benefits to millions of workers and their families.”

If your claim is still pending, we are told it could be because there is a problem with your social security number, your boss hasn’t verified your wages, your address is out of state, or they suspect fraud.

Meanwhile, Twitter is blowing up with angry unemployed residents.

The Governor said that’s one way to get the agency’s attention.
“When the agency sees folks who get quoted in the press or so some stuff on social media about it, they will actually look up and try to find the individuals in the system,” said DeSantis.

And the Governor advises you to call the helpline as a last resort.

The number is 1-833-352-7759.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Most Restaurants Expected to Remain Closed in Phase One

May 4th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Restaurants in all but three Florida counties were able to open their doors to dine-in customers Monday.

It comes a month and a half after the Governor ordered restaurants to close their dining areas and customers Eli Nortelus in Tallahassee are now returning to their favorite eateries.

“It’s a safe move. I’ve still got my mask, we’re staying six feet apart,” said Nortelus.

There are a number of restrictions.

Paper menus, social distancing, no parties larger than ten and the biggest catch: Restaurants can only operate at 25 percent capacity.

“It’s a start,” said Geoff Luebkemann, Vice President of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Looking at data from other states that have moved to open, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association expects to see only 25 to 30 percent of restaurants reopen.

“Some of our members are taking advantage of a gradual ramp up to clean, get ready, get systems back in place and in order. While others as you point out, have made a business choice to wait until they have a little more capacity,” said Luebkemann.

Nathan Line, a Hospitality Professor at FSU, is more optimistic.

“I do think it makes sense to open up. You know a lot of restaurants have managed to do well enough over the past two months with just takeout,” said Line.

While experts we spoke with say opening makes sense for restaurants in cities like the state capital, in cities more dependent on tourism, opening may be harder to justify financially.

“With hotels remaining at very small occupancies or even closed and certainly some of our larger attractions around the state, it really does come down to geography,” said Luebkemann.

And experts said this initial reopening will act as a sort of test.

The state will be watching case numbers closely.

A large enough spike could close dinning rooms once again.

A task force report commissioned by the Governor recommends allowing restaurants to operate at 75 percent capacity and bars at 50 percent in Phase Two, but the Governor will make the final call.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Unclaimed Treasure May Be Waiting for You

May 4th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

If you sitting around bored as the stay at home order begins to ease, you might think about searching for treasure.

Not buried treasure, but unclaimed property being held by the state.

After accounts have been inactive for seven years, state law requires banks and others to turn over the unclaimed assets to the state.

The state reports it’s holding property for one in five Floridians.

“And I just put in my name and started searching,” said Radio Personality Shane Collins.

Collins got bored during the pandemic, searched fltreasurehunt.gov on a lark, and hit the jackpot.

“And literally, I don’t mind telling you, thousands of dollars in my name that I had no clue about. If I had not searched that website, I would not have found that money,” said Collins.

Along with individuals, 1.3 million businesses have unclaimed property totaling almost half a billion dollars.

“I put in my name. My first name, my middle initial. And then I did it with my middle initial and my last name, and it pulled up different accounts all across the state of Florida where I had worked in broadcasting. Or where I had lived, made business transactions,” said Collins.

Collins says the good fortune couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of money that was sitting in the state for years. The state fund for years. An d now it’s coming back to me and my family at the perfect time. We are so grateful,” said Collins.

The real property ends up in a vault in the state capital.

It’s usually auctioned in the Spring, but this year’s auction has been delayed until Fall.

And fear not, if the state has already sold your treasure, you’re still entitled to the money that it brought in.

The proceeds from any property or cash not claimed goes into the state education fund.

And there is more good news.

You never lose the ability to claim what’s rightfully yours, even decades later.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Educators Contemplating New Normal for Schools

May 1st, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Reopen Task Force has set a goal to open schools this Fall.

Now school boards, superintendents and teachers are faced with the difficult task of figuring out how to make it happen and keep students and faculty safe.

Just four sentences of the state’s 32 page reopening plan are dedicated to education.

It calls for schools to reopen, but doesn’t describe what that would look like.

We asked Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna what he’s been able to extrapolate from what the state has put out so far.

“Quite honestly not a lot,” said Hanna.

Hanna is grappling with how to social distance in schools.

It poses some huge challenges.

“Do you go to put 50 or 60 kids on a school bus and how is that social distancing? What do things look like in the cafeteria?” said Hanna.

One idea Hanna floated would be to stagger schedules.

Half of students would be in the classroom one day and switch to distance learning the next.

The CDC has put out its own guidance for safety in the classroom.

It recommends staggering arrival times of students, restricting access of nonessential visitors and maintaining social distancing on busses, in classrooms and cafeterias.

But nothing is set in stone yet.

The Florida School Boards Association told us, there likely won’t be one end all plan.

Instead, FSBA Executive Director Andrea Messina asserts schools and parents must be prepared to adapt.

“Next year is going to be what I would dub, a laboratory year,” said Messina. “Ideally everything is going to be just like it was at the beginning of this Fall. That would be plan A, but let’s say it doesn’t work like that. Then we have plan B and let’s say that doesn’t work. Then we have plan C.”

Along with the logistical challenges, the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is focused on ensuring the safety of vulnerable teachers and students.

“If we have teachers that are of age that are 60 years or older… and more importantly if we have our students and our children that have underlying conditions,” said FEA President Fedrick Ingram.

So far, the union has been left out of reopening discussions.

It’s planning its own reopening task force, which will be announced next week.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Unemployment Vendor Under Fire

May 1st, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis plans to investigate why the state spent $77 million on an unemployment technology system that has cracked under the pressure of the wave of claims caused by the coronavirus.

There is also a call to ban the company behind the technology from a pending state bid until taxpayers get their money back.

At nearly every public event these days, the first question the Governor gets is about the state’s troubled unemployment system.

Friday, he was more forceful than ever in calling for an investigation.

“There’s going to be a whole investigation that’s going to need to be done about how the state of Florida paid $77 million for this thing,” said DeSantis.

After major and costly upgrades to the computer system, the state has sent claimants ten times more cash, just over $598 million, than it did in the previous 30 days.

In recent days the Governor has called the system a ‘clunker’ and said it was designed to fail.

“And we should hold those accountable who built botched systems,” said Rouson.

He’s calling for Deloitte, the company who built the system, to be banned from a pending state bid.

“We should look at the prospects of allowing a company that’s in the shoes of Deloitte, before we grant bids to them,” said Rouson.

The company was late delivering the system back in 2013 and paid $15,000 a day fines.

At the time, Deloitte blamed then Governor Rick Scott’s office for 1,500 design changes.

In calling for the bid ban, Rouson points to the company’s track record, here and elsewhere.

“You can Google their troubles in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and other states where they have either been fired or fined,” said Rouson.

A lawsuit filed last week names Deloitte and seeks to get the company to pay damages to the state and a class of unemployed who have had trouble getting benefits.

A hearing is scheduled next week.

Deloitte provided the following response:

When the state accepted the system and we completed our work in 2015, CONNECT was vastly outperforming the systems it replaced and processing claims more efficiently and accurately than ever before. We have not been involved in the system since then. Clearly, any lawsuit involving us would have no merit.”

We also reached out to US Senator Rick Scott’s office for a response. Here it is:

The Governor should ask his Chief of Staff why the Crist Administration picked Deloitte as the vendor. That would be a good place to start. Right now, every state in the country is struggling to handle the unprecedented volume of suddenly unemployed workers. The important thing is to get relief to people who need it as fast as possible. Crises like this are immune to dumb political squabbles. Real leaders work to solve problems and get the job done. Senator Scott is focused on solving problems to help the people of Florida during this  crisis.  Chris Hartline, Communications Director.


Posted in State News | No Comments »

DeSantis Plans for Phase Two Reopening

April 30th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

As Florida begins a gradual re-opening beginning Monday, the Governor is already mapping a plan for continued openings and small businesses are chomping at the bit.

Nail salons, barber shops, movie theatre’s and gyms will remain closed.

What they all have in common is they require close contact.

“I haven’t had a haircut since February,” Governor Ron DeSantis said Wednesday.

But as the Governor announced the state’s gradual reopening he was optimistic more could be open soon.

“There’s not going to be a firm time. I thought about doing it that way, but we look at the data on an hourly basis. On a daily basis. My hope would be each phase were thinking about weeks. We’re not thinking about months,” said DeSantis.

One of the most important pieces of information in reopening will be the percentage of new positive cases to the number of tests.

Other key data being monitored is the daily fatality rate and the number of available hospital beds, both of which can be key indicators if which way the disease is heading.

Remaining steady or falling could speed up his decision.

Bill Herrle represents Florida’s small businesses in the State Capitol.

“It’s not what you sell, but how you sell it. And we believe that there are many more businesses who can practice their commerce safely,” said Herrle.

For unemployed IT worker Scott Read, the Governor’s actions so far far mean little.

“I don’t think I will get my job back, just because my industry was heavily related to travel and tourism,” said Read.

We’re told not all, but some state parks are also likely to open soon.

And the Department of Health tells us that following basic guidelines can hasten reopening.

“So making sure you are being six feet apart, washing your hands often,” said Deputy Secretary of Health Shamarial Roberson.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

NCAA Plans to Allow Athletes to Profit… With Restrictions

April 30th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Legislation awaiting the Governor’s signature would allow Student athletes to be paid for their image, but a final report by the NCAA on the topic doesn’t go as far as state lawmakers would like.

The bill passed in Florida earlier this year allows student athletes to enter into endorsement deals and profit off their name, image and likeness, so long as they aren’t directly paid by their schools.

“Dozens of sports, male and female athletes will be able to participate in the free market,” said House sponsor Chip LaMarca.

Representative LaMarca calls the 31 page final report put out by the NCAA an embarrassment.

“They basically said, here’s the free market, we’re just going to remove this part and this part and this part and you can play within the guidelines,” said LaMarca.

The report recommends prohibiting group licensing for things like video games and excluding shoe and apparel endorsements.

“Basically you can do basically social media, some other endorsements and advertisements, but nothing of real consequence.”

FSU Sports Management Professor Dr. Jason Pappas tells us the NCAA tried to strike a balance between allowing athletes to profit, while reducing recruitment advantages.

“They wanted to make it as equitable as possible for all institutions,” said Pappas.

LaMarca said the restrictions proposed by the NCAA are especially discouraging, given the current situation with the coronavirus pandemic.

“14 to 20 percent are experiencing homelessness. 20 to 40 percent are experiencing food insecurity. And they haven’t even relaxed these rules in the middle of a pandemic,” said LaMarca.

If signed into law, Florida’s legislation will take effect next July, in time for the Fall season.

The NCAA report also recommends action from Congress to preempt laws passed by states on the issue.

That would make things uniform across the country, but also undermine the spirit of Florida lawmakers proposal.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Department of Health Says It’s Not Hiding Death Count

April 30th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

The State Department of Health is disputing a published report that claims it intervened to keep a tally of coronavirus deaths kept by Florida’s 22 medical examiners from being released publicly.

Deputy Secretary for Health Shamarial Roberson said all Coronavirus deaths are required by law to be reported.

She explained some confusion might have arisen because deaths are reported in the county of residence, not where someone may have died.

“And that death is reported by county. Any death outside of a county, for example, a medical examiner reports the death for a resident in Jacksonville and that medical examiner district is in a different district, the death will be reported to the person’s actual residence. That’s the process,” said Roberson.

On Wednesday, the Governor told reporters that if can often take days for a death to be fully reported, especially when the death was not in the county of residence.

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Unemployment Hits Two Million

April 29th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Applications for unemployment have hit the two million mark after more than 86,000 more people applied on Wednesday.

Many of the nearly quarter million who were denied payments may have been told no simply because of a quirk in state law.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is confirming that many of the 248,000 people whose claim was recently denied was simply because their claim was filed in March.

State law requires applicants to apply every quarter.

“That sounds a bit screwy to me. Curious why April fourth was chosen for you to reapply. Which is really really an inconvenience,” said state Senator Linda Stewart.

Unemployed IT tech Scott Read applied in early April.

He got a check late last week, but Scott’s wife wasn’t so lucky.

She was just denied.

“No explanation. Unfortunately that is the kind of ugly part. She was denied but no explanation why she was denied,” said Read.

In a letter to the Department, Senator Stewart is calling for every rejected claim to get a second look.

“Forty percent. No, they’re not getting the money in their pocket and they are being asked to wait longer and go through a system that you still can’t get on,” said Stewart.

Florida’s official unemployment rate is at 4.3 percent, but that’s based on mid March data.

Our calculations, show it’s closer to 11 percent.

State law requires the number of benefit weeks to increase from the 12 allowed after unemployment hits 5 percent, but because it’s based on a three month average it will likely be June before more weeks are added.

Long after many have lost their eligibility.

Once the three month unemployment average hits 10.5 percent, applicants are eligible for a total of 23 weeks of benefits.

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FSU Weighing Public Health Risk Before Setting Date for Graduation Ceremony

April 29th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Graduation is a special time for students and families.

It’s the final payoff for years of hard work, but for those graduating this spring, the coronavirus put all of that on hold.

“We were all super sad, but at the same time I understand the gravity of the situation and I don’t want people’s health at risk,” said Florida State University Senior Gabrielle Renauld.

FSU Senior Rebecca Caro is heading to work in Colorado after she has her diploma in hand.

The graduation delay means she likely won’t get to walk at all.

“I’m not sure that it’s particularly worth it for me to take the time and the money to just walk across a stage,” said Caro.

Many universities in Florida have set Summer or Fall dates to hold ceremonies for Spring graduates.

More than 3,200 have signed an online petition asking FSU to do the same.

The university has committed to holding a ceremony for Spring graduates, but the date remains uncertain.

“Before families book travel and book hotels and once again are disappointed, we want to make sure that we have a really solid date,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Amy Hecht.

The university’s main concern is the health and safety of students and their families.

Nine to 12,000 gather in the school’s civic center during a typical graduation.

Hecht tells us the university will look to health and government officials for the go ahead.

“It’s no surprise that students want that experience and we’re going to give it to them when it’s safe to do so,” said Hecht.

Still, students we spoke with said they’d like to have a date to look forward to.

“I think it’d be really helpful for graduating seniors like me that are making the move across the country and starting a new job to be able to start making those plans,” said Caro.

“A lot of other schools have already established a date you know like in August, so I think that it’s not unrealistic to try,” said Renauld.

The University is holding a virtual graduation for students this weekend.

While it isn’t ideal, the students we spoke with agreed it’s the right move in these unprecedented times.

In addition to the virtual ceremony FSU is also hosting virtual competitions and celebration activities for seniors throughout the week.

You can find the full schedule here.

Posted in State News | No Comments »

Florida Governor Takes Aim at China

April 28th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida is now pressuring China to pick up some of the costs of the Coronavirus pandemic because of their failure to contain the outbreak.

Missouri and Mississippi filed suit against China last week, blaming the country for the coronavirus outbreak.

Now Florida officials are considering their own actions.

“I saw that Missouri lawsuit. I want to see if Florida can be involved in that. You see what a disaster this has caused. It is because of their malevolence, so they had opportunities to deal with this. They didn’t do it. They covered it up,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

CFO Jimmy Patronis has already written the Chinese Ambassador, sending what he calls an official demand letter.

“We’re going to see losses in the state’s revenue that should cross the billion dollar mark,” said Patronis.

He may stop state payments to Chinese vendors doing business with the state.

We asked Patronis what’s in it for Florida.

“These are direct effects and losses to the state’s revenues due to a virus that did not originate inside the state of Florida, nor in the United States,” said Patronis.

While a long shot, a lawsuit could reduce the impact on state services that may need to be cut because of falling revenue.

In addition to lawsuits, the Florida Legislature may act the next time it meets.

One avenue could be to order the state to divest $4.6 billion the state pension fund has invested in Chinese companies.

The Governor is also pitching medical companies to relocate their Chinese production here.

“For gosh sakes, it you have lifesaving equipment that is being manufactured, do not manufacture it in China anymore. We need to bring this stuff back to the United States,” said DeSantis.

Some officials say consumers can fight back as well, by buying fewer products from China.

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Coronavirus, Mail Ballots, Felons Voting, Challenges for November Election

April 28th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

The coronavirus is putting a heavy strain on elections officials prior to the November general election.

With the prospect of a flood of vote by mail voters and a court case on felons rights that could add nearly a million new voters to the rolls, elections officials are hoping to extend certain deadlines to ensure every vote is counted.

In the past two general elections nearly three million Florida voters cast their ballot through the mail.

Elections officials are preparing for double that in November, due to the coronavirus.

“We don’t know what the future looks like. If we did, things would be simple,” said Tammy Jones, Levy County Supervisor of Elections.

Jones is also the President of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

She tells us managing the anticipated influx will be difficult enough, but state Democrats are also asking the Governor to send all 13.7 million voters a mail ballot.

“It’s just simply not enough time to get those ballots out if we were to do it all vote by mail,” said Jones.

There’s also an ongoing federal trial regarding felons’ ability to vote if they can’t pay outstanding fines and fees.

Depending on how the judge ultimately rules, the total voting population in the state could be increase by as many as 775,000.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, who has been intimately involved in the case tells us registering the additional voters wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, unless they have to jump through extra hoops to prove their eligible.

“That’s a multi-step process. One is getting a process in place. The second is, you know using that process to show that you cannot afford to pay your LFO’s (Legal Financial Obligations) and then that gets you registered,” said Earley.

Supervisors are also facing an anticipated lack of poll workers, potential closures and consolidations of polling locations and the task of ensuring adequate social distancing at polling places.

To reduce the additional strains, supervisors are hoping to extend the window to send out mail ballots and extend early voting.

But so far there’s no been word from the Governor.

“We need to know that now. It would have been to know some of it, you know two or three weeks ago,” said Earley.

If you do decide to vote by mail, you can make sure your vote will count by updating your signature on file now, and requesting and returning your ballot as soon as possible.

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Hemp Cultivation Licenses Now Available

April 27th, 2020 by Jake Stofan

Hemp is a booming industry, but there’s one problem.

“All of the money has been leaving the State of Florida and going elsewhere,” said Gabe Suarez, owner of Natural Life, a Florida CBD chain.

Retailers of hemp products like Suarez don’t have any Florida product to carry.

“Every time one of my businesses purchases any kind of hemp, its purchasing it from a farm outside of the state,” said Suarez.

But soon that won’t be the case, with the Department of Agriculture accepting hemp cultivation applications as of Monday.

75 had already applied halfway through opening day.

“It only took people about 20 minutes to apply,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

Fried anticipates the industry will grow exponentially.

“This could be a 20 to $30 billion industry here in the state, not only on the CBD production,” said Fried. “I mean we’re already doing types of research talking about different ways to use it for plastic replacements and styrofoam replacements.”

Many are hopeful hemp can provide a lifeline to Florida farmers who are destroying as much as 70 percent of their crops due to a lack of demand because of the coronavirus.

“Especially with so many in our agriculture community suffering. You know not only through COVID-19, but even beforehand,” said Fried.

Even if you don’t purchase hemp products yourself, the added revenue from the industry will help keep ‘Fresh from Florida’ produce on your shelves.

“This is an opportunity to create an alternative crop here for our state bring in some significant revenues,” said Fried.

And Fried tells us Florida grown hemp products will also be safer for Florida consumers.

“You’re getting what you’re anticipating. Making sure there’s no THC in there, making sure that there’s actually CBD in there, that there’s not metals involved or other types of chemicals that would be harmful to an individual,” said Fried.

The crop takes about four months to grow, so you can expect to see Florida grown product on retailers shelves by mid Summer or early Fall.

Hemp cultivation must take place on land zoned for agriculture or industrial purposes and applicants cannot have felony narcotics charges within the past ten years.

To apply for a license click here.

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Former Governor Silent on Unemployment Website Failures

April 27th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida’s unemployment system was back online Monday after three days offline to process claims and be upgraded.

Florida’s unemployment technology is now being called “a jalopy” or “clunker” by the current Governor

The system was never designed to manage the crush of applications it is seeing, but from the day the the system was turned on, it has had major problems.

It was a disaster when it launched in late 2013.

“We’re catching half of the calls more or less in week three. Is that correct?” Senator Ed Hooper asked Jennifer Bloom with Deloitte, the company that built the site back in 2013.

“That’s what’s depicted on the slide, yes sir,” Blume replied.

Back then, Deloitte told lawmakers the Rick Scott administration added 1,500 special requirements.

The company is now being sued by three unemployed Floridians who have waited weeks for a check.

“This system was designed to fail and we have a number of people over the course of this litigation that will come forward and testify to that under oath,” said Attorney Gautier Kitchen.

Governor Ron DeSantis, who inherited the system, agrees.

“It was designed with all these different things to basically fail, I think,” said DeSantis.

The system has routinely failed state audits going back to 2015.

The question we want to ask is why anybody would build a system to fail.

We called now US Senator Rick Scott’s office, but received no response.

Scott made headlines last week by criticizing a bill he voted for.

The lawyers behind the suit think taxpayers got bamboozled.

“They wanted the numbers down. They wanted it for a number of reasons. They wanted to bring corporate insurance down for unemployment claims. And there are people who are going to testify to this,” said Kitchen.

At $275 a week for just 12 weeks, Florida has some of the stingiest benefits in the country.

Limiting benefits to 12 weeks was also adopted under Scott’s leadership.

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Third Unemployment Protest in a Month Held in State Capitol

April 27th, 2020 by Mike Vasilinda
For the third time in a month, a handful of cars with signs critical of the state’s unemployment system circled the DEO headquarters with horns blowing.
They circled the block three to four times, making their displeasure know.
At their last protest, several unemployed protestors were asking for retroactive payments dating back to the day they lost their job.
Last week, the state agreed to make payments retroactive to March 9th, or the day a someone was laid off.

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