Coronavirus: Florida Unemployment Claims Cripple State's System

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ACROSS FLORIDA —Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson is pleading for patience as more than 227,000 newly jobless Floridians file unemployment claims in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of unemployed Floridians say they're unable to complete their claims through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's Connect website and can't reach anyone at the Florida Reemployment Assistance Call Center to help them.

"It kicks me off halfway through when trying to claim my weeks," said Shirley Taylor of New Port Richey. "This is a nightmare -- 10 to 12 hours a day trying to get into the system. What happens if I don't get through this?"

The Department of Labor, which collects unemployment statistics from every state, said Florida reported 67,850 layoffs in the service, retail trade, manufacturing, wholesale trade, construction, and agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industries as of March 21.

Unemployment claims in Florida's tourism-dependent economy more than doubled from 33,728 the week of March 14 to 74,313 for the week of March 21, according to the Department of Labor. Initial claims filed during the week of March 28 totaled 227,000. Total claims have reached 348,511, far exceeding the previous record of more than 40,000 in 2009.

Job seekers say those numbers are artificially low because so many have been unable to complete their unemployment claims through the state's subpar system.

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This week, Lawson apologized for the problem-plagued system that is preventing thousands of Floridians from signing up for unemployment benefits.

“I recognize that people need our help during this time of crisis. It's a unique time. I know you've gotta pay your bills, you've gotta eat and that's why I've got to get money out on the streets," he said during a teleconference with Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami. "But over the next week or two, it is going to be difficult. It may be harder to get through the line (due to the high volume of call). But we are using all the money we have, all the resources we have to expand capacity, hire additional staff and bring in outside technology companies to assist us with improving the system."

He said the DEO has received 1.5 million calls from residents complaining about the system. A third of those calls are from people having problems resetting their PINs, or passwords, to allow them to access the system.

"That's one of the biggest problems I'm addressing," he said.

He said he signed a contract with a customer care IT company this week to add 250 representatives to the Florida Reemployment Assistance Call Center. In addition, he said he's contracting with a company to create a mobile-friendly website so residents can use their smart phones and pads to apply.

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And for those frustrated with the technological glitches of the system, Lawson has agreed to provide paper application forms that those seeking benefits can fill out and mail into the DOE.

"It will take a little time but this will help alleviate the problem," Lawson said.

Taddeo said she plans to ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to backdate unemployment claims from the time the workers lost their jobs, saying they shouldn't be penalized for the state's inadequate system. Benefits usually begin on the day the state approves the application.

Lawson added that the U.S CARES Act will ensure a bigger check for those receiving unemployment. Currently, unemployment recipients receive $275 a week.

The U.S. CARES ACT, a $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill signed by President Donald Trump last week, will provide an additional $600 a week for four months to people who qualify for unemployment benefits.

The bill also expands benefits to contractors and gig workers who previously didn’t qualify for Florida unemployment benefits. Those workers now qualify for federal benefits, but they still have to work through their state’s unemployment system.

"From my heart, I apologize for what you're going through but you can count on us to do everything we can, and we're not going to stop," said Lawson. "We recognize it is frustrating and difficult but, regardless, it's a full commitment from me personally and professionally to get you the resources you need from my department."

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida, is asking residents to share their unemployment claims experiences with him. Fill out this form.

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Sen. Annette Taddeo's Facebook page

This article originally appeared on the Tampa Patch

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