Amid crisis, computer access has become essential. In Miami, not everyone has it.

Rob Wile
·7 min read

The state of Florida is asking newly laid off residents to file for unemployment online if they can. That leaves hotel housekeeper Maxine Jackson at a decided disadvantage.

Like thousands of other South Floridians, Jackson can’t use a computer. Others — largely recent immigrants, the elderly and the poor — can’t afford a computer or the latest smartphones, and the data or wireless fees required to get them online.

At a time when closures and restrictions are being announced rapid-fire, residents living without modern technology are at risk of critical updates about the virus and navigating the chaos of unemployment claims, public assistance and potential bailouts.

“I feel helpless,” said Jackson, 51, who worked as hotel housekeeper until last week. “I don’t know where my next check or money is coming from, and I have a car payment, rent, I have all that.”

According to the U.S. Census, there are approximately 150,000 households in Miami-Dade, and another 71,000 in Broward, without any Internet access — about one out of every six households in both counties. At the same time, libraries, a traditional access point for those without computers, have been closed across the region — as have unemployment offices themselves.

STARK DISPARITIES

Comcast and its subsidiary Xfinity are offering two months of free Internet to households with children whose schools have closed. A Comcast representative declined to state how many households had been hooked up, but said the company had seen “a significant increase in applications.” Unfortunately, the fastest way to receive the service is by applying online, the company said, since it is seeing increased wait times for those applying over the phone.

Still, thousands will be left without the ability to look for and apply to jobs, check the status of their unemployment applications and file taxes for the much-needed refunds that could provide a lifeline..

Data from the Pew Research Center throws the digital divide and the resulting socioeconomic disparities into relief. While 82% of white respondents to a Pew survey reported owning a desktop or laptop computer, just 58% of blacks and 57% of Hispanics reported owning one. The data are similar for access to broadband Internet.

Lis-Marie Alvarado, director of the American Friends Service Committee, works with undocumented immigrants in South Florida. Many began working in their home countries at a young age, and today derive income from manual labor or farm work, meaning they are largely illiterate, she says. Most depend on co-workers, aid workers, or even their own English-speaking children for information and support.

Now that many of these workers are being laid off, their precariousness has increased.

“It’s an emergency situation,” she said. “There’s no way for them to find reliable resources when it comes to where to find food, or essential materials, or even housing as people are losing jobs. Some are not going to be able to pay rent. It’s a tragic situation.”

Access to reliable information is another issue, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.

“They are going to have trouble getting access to credible and comprehensive news that helps them make decisions about their quality of life,” she said.

In normal times, local libraries serve as the backup plan for individuals without computer access. But the Miami-Dade and Broward library systems shut down last week. Miami-Dade’s says it now has a plethora of resources available online, including classes, employment resources, language learning and tax assistance programs. But there’s no ready alternative for those who depend on the library to get online in the first place, a library official admitted.

Pew found libraries play an outsized role in the black community. James W. Bryant, 58, could have used one. Last week, he was laid off from his job as a skycap at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Bryant does not own a computer and does not use his phone to browse the internet.

It’s why, one week later, he has still not been able to file for unemployment.

“I can’t figure out which website to go to,” Bryant said.

SPANISH MEDIA

Gregory Porumbescu, an assistant professor and associate director of the Transparency and Governance Center at Rutgers University - Newark is an expert on the digital divide. He says that even in normal times, those without reliable internet access are less likely to prosper. In times like these, he said, their lives become increasingly strained.

For many Miami-area Spanish-speakers, TV and radio become the default source — and Univision says ratings have surged in the past two weeks.

We’re everything to them under normal circumstances,” said Claudia Puig, president and general manager of Univision Miami. “So imagine when it goes to this type of circumstance. They’re turning to us for this type of safety and security info.”

But it’s still no replacement for information at one’s fingertips.

“You have access to everything 24/7 on Internet,” Porumbescu said. “Our new data consumption habits — there’s TV and radio, but people don’t like to be told when they can have access to information, especially if they’re feeling ill.

Mobile devices are helping close the gap; some 81% of U.S. residents now have a smart phone, according to Pew. But that comes with its own risks: black, Hispanic and lower-income smartphone users are about twice as likely as white ones to have canceled or cut off service because of its expense, Pew found.

At the moment, there appears to be little risk of a shut-off for customers who do have phone, cable or internet service. Atlantic Broadband, AT&T and Comcast are all offering customers the option of paying bills by phone or through the mail. Some exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis. FPL and Peoples Gas have also said they will not cut off service.

But reliance on one’s phone, especially when it comes to social media, can lead to its own hazards. There have been at least five known hoaxes regarding pending government actions that appear to be spreading on messaging networks.

“Most stuff on [social media] is word of mouth,” said UNC’s Abernathy. “You’re very susceptible to whatever’s on your Facebook page because that’s the only place you got to go.”

Ada Macias, 47, works as an airline catering worker at Miami International Airport. She says she hasn’t been formally laid off, but has also not been back to work since last week.

Macias has no internet at her home in Little Havana, and relies on getting news updates through her television and on her phone. But she is concerned that she won’t have enough money to pay bills for those should she continue to be out of work.

Macias says she has never sought to rely on government assistance. This time she may have no choice.

But without Internet, she is stymied. While it is possible to apply by phone, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has released a statement saying it is currently being inundated with calls. And even those who are able to apply online are encountering difficulties.

Service Employees International Union Local 32-BJ says it has been helping Bryant, the skycap, and other workers like him without access to a computer find resources amid the crisis. SEIU said it has been texting and calling both members and non-members with ways to get help.

Many members of Unite Here Local 355, which represents several thousand service workers in South Florida, also live in a household without access to a computer or internet, according to MJ Leira, union representative. In response, the union recently acted to create a texting service for workers who don’t own smartphones.

More than 1,100 workers have opted in to receive text message updates. The organization has sent text blasts in English, Spanish and Kreyol with unemployment information, a union hotline number for assistance and an intake form to help with workers who have been laid off.

The usual form of information dissemination — in-person visits at workers’ jobs — is now being disrupted, as Unite Here workers face mass layoffs.

“So we’re heavily reliant on digital forms of communication right now,” Leira said. “Where we’re still able to visit, we do, but in some places” there is no one left to visit.