In an online conference with state legislators, the head of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity today apologized for the massive problems with the state’s unemployment benefits system and promised fixes are on the way, including using a paper application.
“I just need you to understand that from my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson said in the Zoom conference with lawmakers and community leaders. “This is not caused by any of us. This is a virus that’s affecting our world.”
But Lawson also said the fixes will not be quick as COVID-19 virus has caused much of Florida’s economy to shut down and hundreds of thousands of jobless workers are trying to qualify for unemployment benefits.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported today that 227,000 jobless Floridians submitted new unemployment claims last week – a threefold increase from the prior week.
But the numbers do not reflect the tens of thousands of other workers who have not been able to file claims because they’re knocked off the state’s online application system or they can’t reset their PINs or they can’t even get a call through the DEO, the state agency that oversees unemployment claims.
“Bottom line, I’m committed to solving the problems. It’s going to be hard. You have to accept that. But we’re getting the resources necessary to improve the system, but it’s going to take time,” Lawson said in the Zoom conference that also included Sen. Annette Taddeo and Rep. Kionne McGhee, both Miami-Dade County Democrats.
“I recognize that people need our help during this time of crisis. It’s a unique time,” Lawson said. “I know you’ve got to pay your bills. You’ve got to eat. And that’s why I need to get money out on the street. But over next week or two, it is going to be difficult.”
“But we are using all the money we have, the resources we have, (to) expand capacity, hire additional staff, bring in outside technology companies to assist us with improving this system. That’s my commitment,” he said.
Describing the scope of the challenge, Lawson said his agency is receiving as many as 220,000 calls a week about unemployment benefits, compared to 5,000 calls in “a normal week.”
Lawson said his immediate focus is correcting problems with jobless workers establishing a PIN (a personal identification number) in the online system. He said a third of the calls his agency is receiving are from people who are having PIN problems.
He said he signed a contract with a outside call center on Sunday to work with jobless workers who are having PIN problems.
Lawson said he signed another contract with a company to create “a friendly mobile website,” which will take longer to establish but will allow workers to create a PIN and eventually be able to file an application using their I-phones or other devices.
Lawson also said the DEO will create a paper application and make it available statewide by distributing it in places like state lawmakers’ offices, community centers or churches.
The applications will have to be mailed to the DEO. And Lawson said he is hiring another company that will be able to scan those applications into the agency’s unemployment benefits system.
“I’ve got to be as creative as possible because of where we are. That’s happening now,” Lawson said.
Responding to a question from Taddeo, Lawson said the jobless benefits will be calculated from the time the application is filed. Workers can receive up to $275 a week from the state, with an additional $600 in federal aid that is part of the recently approved CARES Act.
Taddeo said she wants to see the benefits calculated from the date that the workers lost their jobs. She said she will make that appeal to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been using his emergency powers to adjust state programs because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“I will be asking the governor to back date to the point you lost your job because I do think that’s not fair to the people who are applying,” Taddeo said.
Lawson said DeSantis is very supportive of efforts to improve the overwhelmed unemployment system. Under the emergency powers, the state has already waived a work-search requirement that is normally part of the process of workers receiving unemployment benefits. This week, the state also eliminated a one-week waiting period that is normally used before workers get benefits.
“He knows the pain of the people,” Lawson said about DeSantis. “And he has told me, use every single resource to make things happen for the people of Florida.”