For several years, Michael Freas has earned a living by capturing thousands of special moments through the lens of his camera. Photography, he says, is a passion that has helped him survive on many different levels.
“If I hadn’t become a photographer, I’d probably be dead by now,” he said.
Michael said he started working as a photographer in 2015, after sobering up. In the years that followed, he built his photography business in Key West.
“Whenever somebody wants a really fun, cool photographer, they call me,” he said.
Then, COVID-19 hit, during what would normally be his busiest time of the year.
“Every event from March 15 until August 1 is postponed,” he said, adding he had gone from receiving a steady flow of income to nothing.
Even though Michael said he applied for help through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity weeks ago, he has not been able to receive any of the funds he believes he qualifies for under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
“All our bills just start adding, adding, adding,” he said. “I’m 40 years old and I’m on food stamps right now.”
It’s one reason why Michael joined a group of Florida residents who filed a writ of mandamus, a class-action lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Department of Economic Opportunity.
“We’re asking the court to make the governor and the DEO go and somehow pay these folks within 24 and 48 hours,” said Marie Mattox, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, which includes unemployed workers ranging from an airline ticket counter agent to a restaurant employee.
Mattox and attorney Gautier Kitchen said they believe the lawsuit was the only way to get relief for those waiting to receive the benefits they qualify for and who are suffering because of the system’s failures.
“We have one client here in Tallahassee who is telling us he has a 2-month-old child, had to trade his child’s diapers for food,” Kitchen said. “Imagine picking between your child having diapers or food.”
He added, “These are real people, with real families, real problems and real fear.”
It’s a reality Michael knows about firsthand.
“I’ve probably cried more in the past month and a half than I’ve cried my entire life,” Michael said. “You just sit down and you feel defeated every day.”
Michael said he was able to talk to someone at the DEO Friday who promised to help him get his application through the system. But Michael still did not know when he would be getting any funds. He was determined to keep fighting, especially for others who are going through similar hardship.
“I want everybody paid,” he said.
The governor’s office did not respond to NBC 6’s email requesting comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the DEO said they “…do not comment on open litigations.”
Mattox and Kitchen said if the suit is successful, its impact should be widespread.
“It should impact every single unemployed person in the state of Florida who has not received their benefits,” Mattox said. “That is the goal.”
Mattox added they are asking the court to consider a “pay and chase system”.
“That means that they’d go ahead and pay the benefits to every single person,” she said. “And then if they find later that some of those payments were not properly given, to go ahead and chase those payments down. My gut is that there is going to be very little chasing and that every person that has applied for those benefits will be deserving of those benefits.”
Read the full lawsuit below.