Congress recently passed a more than $2 trillion coronavirus pandemic assistance bill, a portion of which is designed explicitly to help the unemployed and their families. But how likely is it that those families will be able to apply for and receive those benefits or even learn of their existence? Florida’s track record is not encouraging.
The state’s unemployment benefit system has for weeks required every worker to negotiate an almost impenetrable computerized system on a complicated, hard-to-find website. If you do not have a computer and internet service, you can’t even go to a public library to file your claim, as many county library branches are closed indefinitely.
Therefore, it was not a surprise when the Miami Herald recently reported that the predictable surge of applicants affected by the coronavirus lockdown had overwhelmed the website, with many complaining that it is impossible to get through. In addition, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which administers unemployment benefits, has only answered 2 percent of calls, according to news reports.
State auditors warned Gov. DeSantis “that Florida’s unemployment website was still suffering major problems, including glitches, error messages and other problems that thousands of Floridians are now experiencing,” according to the Herald. Still, Florida did not make serious efforts to remedy the issues. Years before, the National Employment Law Project found that Florida’s jobless benefits system was “virtually inaccessible.” Since the pandemic, DEO has resorted to paper applications and spent $119 million to develop another website, among other services. By comparison, the ill-conceived CONNECT system cost $77.9 million.
Deep structural issues, however, cannot be resolved by Band-Aids. All applications still must migrate to the ill-designed CONNECT system. Applicants then must log on to the beleaguered system to claim their benefits bi-weekly, that’s if their application is accepted at all.
Sadly, this inaccessibility is not unique to the unemployment assistance system. In 2017, after Hurricane Irma, the State-run disaster food stamp distribution was similarly ill-designed and overwhelmed — requiring families, the elderly and people with disabilities to wait for hours outdoors in the sun to apply in person. This month, we saw that tragedy repeat itself in Hialeah, when hundreds lined up despite the risk of infection, just to get a paper application for unemployment assistance.
Florida must learn from its past failures in order to secure its residents’ futures. Many hundreds of billions of dollars are being appropriated for both traditional and novel programs to help workers, homeowners, renters and small shop owners. However, Florida’s record has been poor in actually distributing those dollars. Unfortunately, we must ask ourselves again: Will those dollars ever reach their intended targets — particularly those who most need them? Will the most needy even learn that the programs exist? Or will the dollars, like the unemployment benefits, be mired in impossible application processes and obscure regulations?
Beyond temporary fixes, Florida should extend the number of weeks one can receive benefits, increase the maximum weekly benefit amount, not require applicants to log on to the beleaguered CONNECT website every two weeks to claim their benefits and make benefits retroactive to when applicants lost their jobs. All but seven states offer 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. Florida offers less than half that — a maximum of 12 weeks of benefits. Georgia just implemented a new emergency rule extending unemployment benefits to the full 26 weeks. DeSantis should follow suit.
Further, it’s essential to raise awareness more broadly, and the processes should be simplified and easy-to-use. It is one thing to create grand far reaching programs but it is quite another to have them work at the grassroots level to help their intended beneficiaries. Florida’s DEO must include community organizations, unions, religious groups and advocates that can best ensure that people learn of these programs and are able to access them. Most important, those developing and administering these programs must be open to complaints and criticism from the people trying to gain access, particularly important when all public meetings are being held virtually.
We cannot afford to stumble from crisis to crisis, with no plan and with only the unacceptable excuse that it was unforeseeable. Our economy depends upon all residents’ ability to get swift, direct assistance.
Let’s not fail our people again.
Jean-Luc Adrien, of Equal Justice Works, is a disaster recovery legal fellow for the Community Justice Project.