TAMPA BAY, FL — Across Florida, the state's newly jobless residents have been frustrated by their inability to file for unemployment on the state's overwhelmed Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's Connect website.
Between March 15 and April 5, more than 562,000 Floridians applied for unemployment. That's more than the 326,653 applications received for the entire year in 2019.
Workers complain that the system knocks them offline or won't accept their PIN numbers to log on. When they call the Florida Reemployment Assistance Call Center for help, they say their calls go unanswered.
While Ken Lawson, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said the department is working on solutions to the backlog of requests including adding call center staff and introducing a user-friendly app for smart phones and tablets, he's also giving jobless residents an opportunity to return to basics and fill out a paper unemployment application.
However, downloading a paper application requires a printer, and many jobless residents complain that, with libraries now closed, they have no access to a printer.
Last week, Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, began printing paper applications in English and Spanish and providing them to residents for free from the back porch of her campaign headquarters in South Tampa.
Taking its cue from Cruz, Hillsborough County has opened drive-thru services at two libraries to offer unemployment forms to those who do not have access to a printer.
Residents can go to the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library, 3910 S. Manhattan Ave., and the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, 2902 W. Bearss Ave., to pick up the printed forms used to apply for unemployment assistance.
Once completed, residents can drop off the forms at either drive-thru, and library staff will mail the documents for them.
Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The two library drive-thrus will be open exclusively to distribute and collect unemployment assistance applications. Otherwise, county libraries remain closed to the public.
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While jobless residents struggle with the logistics of simply filing an unemployment claim, Florida's Democratic leadership is calling for Gov. Ron DeSantis to increase unemployment pay and extend the amount of time residents can receive it.
Currently, the 12 weeks unemployed Floridians can collect benefits matches North Carolina for the shortest in the country, and the $275-a-week maximum jobless benefit is among the lowest in the country. The average weekly unemployment benefit in the U.S. is $366, while Florida's average is $251.
Residents will receive some relief from President Donald Trump's recently approved $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill, the U.S. CARES Act, which will add $600 a week for four weeks to the paychecks of unemployed workers.
The CARES Act also expands benefits to contractors and gig workers who previously didn't qualify for Florida unemployment benefits. Those workers can now qualify for federal benefits, but they still have to go through their state's overburdened unemployment system to receive benefits.
In the meantime, CareerSource offices around the state, charged with helping unemployed residents find jobs, have changed their focus, concentrating on helping people file unemployment applications.
For resources, click here to find links for all the state's CareerSource offices.
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