FL workers struggle to claim unemployment benefits, even as feds increase aid during COVID-19 crisis

The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Miami-Dade County. Credit: St. Regis

Maxine Jackson worked as a housekeeper at the posh St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Miami-Dade County until March 20, when she was laid off.

Now Jackson, is a single mother raising five children, needs help in the form of unemployment benefits that Florida pays workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

She is not the only one. Unemployment is skyrocketing in Florida as the COVID-19 outbreak has forced the closure of hotels, dine-in restaurants, bars, and other businesses — particularly those that rely on the more than 120 million tourists who normally visit the state each year.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced on Thursday that Florida had reported a record 74,021 workers filing for unemployment through March 21, among 3.3 million workers nationally who filed unemployment claims last week.

But Jackson’s claim, as well as those by thousands of additional Florida workers, have overwhelmed the benefits system at the state Department of Economic Opportunity. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Ken Lawson, who oversees the DEO, conceded the state is struggling to cople with the unprecedented wave of unemployed workers.

DeSantis said the sheer volume of the unemployed workers — which has already exceeded the peak demand reached during the Great Recession — poses a major challenge for the state’s unemployment benefits system.

“You’re talking about something that has never been seen before. “No one would have planned for most [or] a lot of the economy to just stop. So, we’re going to get more people in there,” DeSantis said Friday, meaning adding employees to process claims.

“It’s something that we’re working on, but it is going to just require a whole new surge of things that I think even the most prudent person would not have anticipated at this level,” he said.

DeSantis, who has already used his emergency powers to waive some of the unemployment benefit application requirements, said he remains open to additional changes if he is convinced it could help Floridians in need.

“A lot of low- and moderate-wage employees have really suffered a lot,” he said. “We don’t want to compound that. And so, if there are things that I can do to make it more streamlined … we want to do that. So, we will look at everything.”

‘Virtually inoperable’ claims system

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami-Dade County Democrat, said Lawson, the DEO director, has told him the agency has hired an outside call center to help with the massive wave of workers seeking help.

But, in an interview with the Florida Phoenix, Rodriguez said the primary problem remains technical glitches that simply prevent workers from completing the application process.

“We have robust federal assistance coming that is going to increase by multiples what anybody would otherwise receive in the Florida system,” Rodriguez said. “But the biggest constraint our constituents have, that are out of work, is that is that the system is virtually inoperable right now for most people trying to apply.”

That was the case for Maxine Jackson.

“I’m calling and nobody answers. This morning I called and they put me on hold and then the phone just went dead,” she said during a phone conference arranged by the Florida AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other Florida labor groups on Thursday.

“I’m kind of frustrated right now. I’m worried because I’m wondering where I’m going get money to put food on my table for my kids,” said Jackson, a member of the Unite Here Local 355 union.

Florida labor leaders say they are not surprised and on Thursday sent a letter asking the Republican governor to use his emergency powers to initiate reforms that would make applying for unemployment benefits easier for workers losing their jobs because of the coronavirus.

“Florida’s unemployment system is broken, badly so, and it’s important to understand that it was broken by design,” said Rich Templin, political director for the Florida AFL-CIO.

The unemployment benefits fund went insolvent during the Great Recession, which began in late 2007.

Templin said the only way to replenish it was to raise the premiums that Florida businesses pay into the fund, but that business lobbyists convinced lawmakers not to dramatically increase their premiums.

“So, they had to find another way to replenish it. What they did was they changed the system to make it nearly impossible for workers to access any benefits,” Templin said. “Money was going in at a slow rate from the business community, but no money was going out.”

Those changes came in 2011, when Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott was governor. The new law limited benefits to no more than $275 a week, with a cap of 12 weeks. The cap could be changed annually based on a rising unemployment rate.

Other provisions included not paying workers for their first week of unemployment and requiring them to prove they were eligible for the benefits, rather than having the employers prove the workers are not eligible.

“They turned it on its head,” Templin said.

He said the additional legal requirements are one of the reasons why it can take unemployed workers hours to fill out the state benefits form.

The net result is that the data show only 28 percent of workers can navigate the bureaucratically complicated system and qualify for the benefits, Templin said.

That meant that if a massive wave of unemployed workers came to Florida, fewer than a third of those workers would be paid their benefits. That’s the very situation the virus has forced upon the state.

“That means two-thirds of all workers will not receive a single dollar,” Templin said. “We currently have $4 billion in that trust fund. Every dollar that goes out in the form of unemployment insurance benefits generates a $1.64 in local economic activity. This could be a major lifeline, not only for workers, but all of Florida’s economy in all of our communities.”

But “the money can’t get out the door” unless DeSantis uses his emergency powers to make the benefits easier to access for the unemployed workers, he said.

Templin acknowledged that DeSantis has used his emergency power to change some elements of the unemployment benefits system, including temporarily dropping a provision that workers had to prove they made at least five attempts weekly to find another job while receiving benefits.

But  more needs to be done, including dropping the one-week period with no benefits and updating the system to allow workers to include the last quarter of their employment as part of the benefits calculation, he said.

Stingy Florida

The prohibition against using the last-quarter employment records was based on a decades-old system that relied on forms being mailed to Tallahassee.

Florida workers — if they qualify under the state system — will be in line for increased benefits under the $2 trillion relief package passed by the U.S. Senate and House and signed by President Donald Trump.

On top of the maximum state benefit of $275 a week, workers will receive an additional $600, for a total of $875. Additionally, the federal legislation extends the payment period for another 13 weeks, meaning workers will receive a little more than six months of benefits.

The federal legislation will also allow so-called “gig economy” workers, who often work on contracts, to qualify for benefits. Those workers normally do not qualify under Florida law.

But Templin said those federal changes must be put into the context of state’s history of being stingy with unemployment benefits. Florida’s $275 in weekly support is well below the $385 average that states paid unemployed workers in February, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Templin also noted that $275 is the maximum and workers earning closer to the minimum wage would be paid less.

Additionally, many states already provide 26 weeks of coverage — compared to Florida’s 12 weeks — meaning those workers may qualify for up to 39 weeks of unemployment support, while Florida workers would be limited to 25 weeks.

Wendi Walsh, a labor leader with Unite Here Local 355, a Miami-based union that represents workers in hotels, casinos, stadiums, airports, and schools, said she and other union leaders are being besieged by workers looking for help in qualifying for the unemployment benefits.

She said that is why it is important for DeSantis to consider some of the changes unions across the state are asking him to make in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

“While we know that [the federal relief package] will give a boost to the benefits, you still have to go through the Florida unemployment process in order to access those benefits,” Walsh said.

“If the system is broken, then you will not only not get your Florida benefits, but you’re not going to get your federal benefits either. And people are desperate to actually receive those benefits right away.”