Florida says navigating the unemployment system is getting easier. Beau Guyott disagrees. And he’s out to prove it — one step at a time on a long walk to Tallahassee.
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WEST PALM BEACH — Beau Guyott is unhappy with Florida’s unemployment system. Namely, because he’s one of untold thousands of workers, left jobless in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, who find themselves unable to access any benefits.
With no job prospects and no unemployment money coming in, Guyott is at the end of the road. So, he’s decided to follow a new path — one that leads north to Tallahassee.
And he’s walking it.
The 417-mile trip is estimated to take 12 days, assuming he covers 40 miles each 14-hour day of walking. A goal, he said, is to cast a spotlight on the many people suffering hardship as governments flounder.
“The social media stories are going to reiterate the fact that all this money that is being spent is apparently not winding up where it should be,” he said.
Guyott was laid off in mid-March from the newly-opened The Ben Hotel in West Palm Beach, where he had just started working as a server after three years at The Colony Hotel on Palm Beach island.
>>Unemployment forms available at Palm Beach County libraries
A career restaurant worker, Guyott, 46, is eligible for up to $275 per week in state unemployment and another $600 per week in federal benefits. But he can’t seem to get his hands on any of those promised assistance dollars.
“I personally know of no one in my network that has received approval, a schedule of when their benefits will arrive, or a dime from the state,” he said of the daunting task of navigating the faulty system.
Guyott figures there are many, many more people in the same situation across the state. He plans to share stories of other families confronted with challenges similar to his own — no job, no money, no insurance, and no luck with the unemployment system.
Dedicated Facebook and Instagram pages will chronicle his solo trip, which he will begin on Saturday with nothing but a 40-pound backpack crammed with energy bars, water and a sleeping bag.
Once he arrives in Tallahassee, Guyott said he will offer help, not complaints.
“The ultimate goal when I get to Tallahassee is to do anything I can at the Department of Economic Opportunity,” he said of the department that manages the unemployment system. “Wherever they need help, that’s where I want to be.”
The state says it has allocated $100 million-plus to hire additional workers and add servers to help process the influx of unemployment applications. While a step in the right direction, Guyott said it simply is not enough.
“There is a misconception that the help is trickling through,” he said. “They are saying phone lines are opening up and applications are going through, but that is not happening.”
And he wants to prove it.
On his trip up Florida’s east coast and across the state, he plans to post videos, photos and details of the struggles faced by unemployed hospitality workers, farmers, retailers, tech industry hands, and anyone else who wants to share their futile attempts to navigate the system.
He said he wants legislators to see the faces and hear the voices behind the massive problem. He also hopes community members and leaders will see the posts and rally around family-owned businesses or individuals that they otherwise might not have known were in such dire straits.
“The focus is not on the large chains, but the restaurants and places we go on a daily basis in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Are they going to be here in two months? In my neighborhood, they are not.”
In touristy areas such as West Palm Beach, where Guyott worked at The Ben, mass layoffs hit particularly hard. To help prevent the spread of coronavirus, businesses were forced to close during “season” — the busiest time of year that many restaurants and hotels count on to sustain them through the slower summer months.
But this year, the hustle and bustle of the season gave way to desolate streets and shuttered storefronts. Guyott was one of the 90% of hospitality workers statewide laid off within a month of the first reported case of coronavirus in Florida, according to the AFL-CIO.
Like many of his friends and associates, Guyott said, he tried in vain to apply for unemployment. But he experienced the same aggravation as many others — an online system that constantly crashed, phone lines that went unanswered, no reply to his mail-in application.
After much frustration, he finally received a response. But it wasn’t the one he was hoping for.
Instead of getting approval for benefits, he received a notice saying he was potentially a victim of identity theft.
“I called about my identity theft situation an average of 40 times a day for two weeks,” he said. “I would phone and receive a recording: ‘At this time we are unable to place you on hold. We apologize for the inconvenience.’ And then the line goes dead.”
Guyott said he knows of numerous people who received the same notice.
None of them could get through to the dedicated phone number on the notice. Now, a month later, he’s no closer to getting an unemployment check than he was when the entire process began.
So, off he goes to Tallahassee.
He said he is unsure how things will play out when he gets there, but he is willing to do whatever it takes to help right the system.
“What I want to avoid is complaining and getting bogged down with what has already happened,” he said. “The goal is to avoid that. We have to look forward — I want to find out how to avoid this issue in the future and what people can do to help.”
In the few days left until he departs, Guyott has been walking, running and biking to get in shape. Admittedly, he could have driven to Tallahassee. It would have been easier.
But in this case, the trip is more about the journey than the destination.
“No one would care. It would have zero impact,” he said of why he opted not to drive. “I don’t know of any other way to get anyone’s attention.”
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