‘Helpless feeling’: Floridians furious over not getting through to the unemployment office

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Kevin G. Hall
·6 min read
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Despite its huge hospitality and tourism sectors, Florida’s latest measure of first-time claims for unemployment benefits lags behind Michigan and far behind California and New York. Under normal circumstances, that’d be something to celebrate. But today, populous Florida is a laggard for the wrong reason.

The nearly 153,000 first-time claims in Florida for unemployment benefits, reported by the Labor Department on Thursday, cover a weekly period that ended last Saturday. But that number is wildly low because so many Floridians are unable to log on to the website of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s Reemployment Assistance Program.

In a sign that things won’t get better quickly, Executive Director Ken Lawson took to an Internet teleconference on Thursday to say he’s looking at allowing people to file claims the old fashioned way — on paper.

“From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” Lawson told newly unemployed Floridians. “There’s a full commitment from me, personally and professionally, to get you the resources you need from my department.”

He said for those who have been unable to file a claim, the state will make benefits retroactive to the date they were laid off.

There was no such apology from Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who as governor redesigned Florida’s unemployment system, including giving it the euphemistic new name, the Reemployment Assistance Program.

“As Governor, he made investments to ensure the system worked and Florida’s Unemployment Insurance program is funded at record levels thanks to reforms … meaning more Florida families can receive the help they need,” Sarah Schwirian, the senator’s spokeswoman, said in an email. “This is an unprecedented crisis, and Senator Scott is focused on making sure we boost the existing unemployment system so those out of work can get immediately the help they need.”

On Twitter Thursday, Sen. Scott demanded an investigation of China, referenced a “great call” with the Humane Society and praised NFL teams for letting their parking lots be used for coronavirus testing. He did not address the mangled unemployment website he bequeathed to the state.

A malfunctioning jobless claims network in Florida also means delays for some people seeking to get federal stimulus money through programs shepherded in the stimulus legislation by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Some of the stimulus money is routed through the “reemployment” assistance program. Rubio is watching development closely.

“Floridians all across our state have lost their job, had their hours cut, and wages reduced — and the numbers are higher than many people realize or have been reported,” Rubio said in a statement late Thursday to the Herald, noting his small business loan program will soon begin. “I have been focused on the Paycheck Protection Program as a lifeline at a time when many are facing a dire situation, and I will continue to work to ensure that millions of small businesses and the Americans they employ can take advantage of it.”

Also Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he’d signed an emergency order to redeploy leaders of other agencies to work with Lawson to find a way to step up the processing of claims.

The delays are no small matter. Over the past two weeks ending Saturday, more than 227,000 Floridians have sought unemployment benefits. That’s about 2.5 percent of the state’s nine million non-farm payrolls, a large percentage spike but one that could still quadruple.

Here’s why: More than three quarters of the state’s payroll jobs involve providing a service, whether that is staffing the desk of a hotel, booking an itinerary for someone looking to take a cruise, handling the accounting for a real estate company or caring for the elderly. Thousands of newly unemployed have been unable to file for benefits because of problems with the so-called CONNECT system. And that was before Florida this week became the last large, populous state to issue stay-at-home orders, soon to add many more service sector workers to the ranks of the unemployed.

“Florida is particular because a large portion of the state’s workforce is employed in hourly occupations. Tourism, leisure and hospitality is almost totally shut down,” said Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities who specializes in the U.S. Southeast. “It’s also healthcare, which is also disproportionately important to Florida.”

And since so many of these sectors are seeing layoffs, the fact the Florida has notched fewer requests for claims than Michigan, which posted 183,000 for the same period, is a problem.

The shock to the economy from closures to halt the spread of COVID-19 are being felt nationwide, but several years of ignoring audit findings of problems with the “reemployment” program’s CONNECT system are now compounding the shock in Florida. The Herald is being flooded by calls and emails from desperate citizens complaining they can’t file for unemployment benefits.

“I lost my job a week ago. I started literally a week ago Friday trying to get the information filed to do what I could do to get some measure of relief, and I’ve gone nowhere with it,” said David Boudreau, 61, who was laid off from a finance job in commercial real estate. “It’s just one big battle. It’s not just a casual effort. I am really trying.”

For many, their attempts were server error notifications. And others have gotten started filing a claim only to see the system collapse.

“I have come close to completing the online and bam....out ! Horrible,” wrote Jose Monte. “I set my alarm for 3-4 a.m. to see if I get lucky. Helpless feeling.”

Only one person had reached out to say they’d filled out their claims documents, but that person too can no longer get in the system.

“I think I was just lucky early on,” said Nick C., a Miami resident who asked that his surname be withheld so as not to upset his former employer.

Nick believed that because his pink slip came in early March he was processed before the real crush of applications. But he has yet to receive the check he needs to help support a wife and young son, and he can no longer log on to the CONNECT system to check his status.

Miami Herald staff writer Rob Wile in Miami and Alex Daugherty in Washington contributed.