‘Horrific situation’: Jobless claims grow, but Floridians can’t access benefits from inept unemployment system

Unemployment Claim. Credit: YouTube.

Some 654,000 jobless Floridians have filed for unemployment benefits in the last month, with 181,293 filing initial claims in the week ending April 11, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report released Thursday.

But many doubts remain as to whether the Florida numbers accurately portray the scope of workers seeking help after losing their jobs because of the COVID-19 outbreak in the nation’s third largest state.

And jobless workers remain frustrated by an inept state unemployment benefits system that has made it difficult to impossible to file a claim and have it processed, let alone request benefits so they can pay rent and buy food, among other expenses.

In what amounts to a crisis for jobless Floridians who can’t get their benefits, the unemployment benefit system on Thursday continued to crash, with  jobless people getting nowhere by phone or online.

Callers to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity get recorded messages that say the phone system is overwhelmed — directing them to the agency’s website, Floridajobs.org.

FL unemployment benefits system is overwhelmed and jobless workers can’t get their benefits. Credit: FL Department of Economic Opportunity.

Yet the agency’s Connect portal remains unresponsive, prompting unemployed Floridians to repeatedly attempt to logon with no result.

After overnight maintenance, the site told users early Thursday that it would be down for maintenance every day from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m., closing the window of opportunity for users to request benefits.

As of late Thursday morning, users still were unable to maintain connections to the jobless portal.

State Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, said jobless workers are contacting her office and reporting continuing problems with the Department of Economic Opportunity’s unemployment benefits system.

“Today, weeks into this crisis, our office is still receiving calls from constituents who cannot log into the system, whose claims remain pending after four weeks with no communication and, who, when they call into DEO, are placed on hold for several hours, only to be suddenly disconnected,” Good said in a statement released Wednesday.

Good said the “horrific situation” calls for “complete transparency” from the DEO, including regular reports on the number of claims filed, claims approved or denied and the number of claims pending.

“The failure to be transparent only fuels the frustration and anxiety we are all feeling and is no way to run a government in a time of crisis — it’s completely unacceptable on every level,” Good said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday removed Ken Lawson, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, from overseeing the unemployment benefits system. The governor has tapped Jonathan Satter, secretary of the Department of Management Services, to take over the benefits system.

One reason for the management change is that DeSantis can’t get updated numbers from the DEO’s system.

“Every morning I should know how claims have been paid. Right now, it’s hard for me to even get those numbers and that’s unacceptable,” DeSantis said. “We need to know how many claims are being paid, not only on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis.”

“I hope that Jon can get in there and rattle the cage,” DeSantis said, noting Satter’s agency is responsible for handling much of the technology in the state government.

DeSantis said under normal circumstances a qualified jobless worker should receive a check within three weeks after the claim is approved.

But he said that is too long given that hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs through no fault of their own when Florida businesses, dine-in restaurants, bars, theme parks and other facilities were forced to close to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

“It’s been my judgment that that’s too long, particularly under these circumstances,” DeSantis said. “I think what people want more than anything is to actually see the money being turned around. And that’s regardless of how fast the (DEO) website is.”

DeSantis said he is open to making more changes in the state’s unemployment benefits system to help the jobless workers. He has used his emergency powers to eliminate a work-search requirement for workers receiving benefits. And he dropped a one-week waiting period for the benefit recipients.

Asked whether he would seek to increase the $275 a week state unemployment benefits payment, DeSantis said he didn’t think he could do that under his emergency powers.

“We’ll look at what we can do. But I don’t think emergency powers mean that you can appropriate new money beyond what the Legislature has set out,” he said.

Under the federal CARES Act, the jobless workers in Florida will also receive an additional $600 a week in benefits, but the state’s online portal doesn’t appear to address the federal benefit.

And some lawmakers and labor advocates are urging DeSantis to extend the state’s 12-week benefits payment plan and to make the benefits retroactive to the time the worker lost their jobs.

In a letter to Satter on Thursday, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, asked why the state could not use the governor’s emergency powers to increase the $275 a week benefit and extend the 12 weeks of payments.

“It seems inconsistent that some statutory requirements of (Florida labor laws) can be waived during part or all of the emergency while others (per DEO’s position as relayed to me) could not. Please clarify the basis for stating that executive powers are limited to certain sections of Chapter 443,” Rodriguez wrote.

Rodriguez also questioned whether gig economy workers and part-time workers, who do not qualify under the state benefits system, will be able to access their federal benefits if the state rejects their applications.

“Thanks to the CARES Act, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance provides assistance to business owners, self-employed, independent contractors, have limited work history, and others not usually eligible for regular state unemployment benefits. My constituents do not have clarity on how and when they can apply for PUA,” Rodriguez wrote.

Meanwhile, DeSantis and the state unemployment benefits system, and its continuing problems, drew criticism from the state Democratic Party on Thursday.

“People can’t wait weeks, much less months, for relief after losing their jobs,” said Juan Penalosa, the party’s executive director. “They needed that assistance weeks ago and the governor must do better.”

“Instead of taking responsibility, DeSantis seems to be taking another page from Donald Trump’s playbook and is passing the buck of this failure to his administrators,” Penalosa said in a statement.

The latest Florida unemployment benefit claims represent a 6.7 percent increase over the prior week, when 169,885 claims were filed, the report shows. Florida’s weekly peak was reached on March 28, with 228,484 claims filed.

At the national level, the Department of Labor reported another 5.2 million jobless workers made initial claims for unemployment benefits for the week ending April 11. Over the last month, some 22 million workers across the nation have filed for benefits.

Florida’s 181,293 claims last week ranked the state seventh in the nation, the federal report shows.

The top five states were: California (660,966); New York (395,357); Georgia (317,526); Texas (273,567); and Pennsylvania (238,357).

The Florida Phoenix has reported on the problems with the state system in this story and this report.

And the Phoenix has chronicled some of the faces of the jobless who have been laid off and trying to get unemployment benefits.

Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.