Protesting in their cars, laid-off workers demand changes to Florida unemployment system

Bianca Padró Ocasio
·3 min read

A caravan of jobless workers in Florida protested the state’s unemployment application system Sunday, as many say they continue to struggle to file unemployment claims in the state.

Workers with Unite Here Local 355, the hospitality workers’ union in South Florida, taped signs to their cars and drove to House Speaker Jose Oliva’s Miami office, asking for a fix to Florida’s unemployment system.

“These are folks who are making somewhere in the range from $10 to $13 an hour,” said Wendi Walsh, secretary and treasurer for Unite Here Local 355. “They struggle in the best of times to make ends meet and of course this is causing them to not pay their rent.

“For now, evictions are not happening, but that is going to get lifted at some point.”

Workers who have been unemployed during the coronavirus pandemic protested outside the office of House Speaker Jose Oliva on Sunday.
Workers who have been unemployed during the coronavirus pandemic protested outside the office of House Speaker Jose Oliva on Sunday.

The caravan was part of a statewide action organized by the union, which represents nearly 7,000 hospitality and tourism workers in South Florida.

The protest comes about a month into the state’s job loss crisis caused by the coronavirus crisis. Florida’s unemployment system, which is overseen by the Department of Economic Opportunity, has been mired in setbacks, including a dysfunctional website, under-staffing and a growing backlog of claims.

Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that of 850,000 active claims, just over 33,000 unemployment applications have been processed. According to recent data released by the state, Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate more than doubled in March, a figure that could still not account for many of the unemployed workers whose application status is uncertain.

Amid the chaos, DeSantis has also replaced the head of DEO Ken Lawson with Jonathan Satter, secretary of the Department of Management Services.

Still, the faulty system has left an unknown number of unemployed workers who say they don’t know the status of their applications or whether they have been received.

Mustaf Alijaj, a former doorman at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, said it took him two weeks since he first began applying for unemployment to send in his application. While he tried numerous times to access the state unemployment website and call the main phone line, Alijaj said he resorted to mailing a paper application.

“It’s just been really frustrating at this point. I’m just tired. I’m watching the news; they keep saying they’re going to hire more people,” Alijaj said in a virtual news conference held by Unite Here. “April’s rent already came and went. May’s rent is coming up and I have no money coming in.”

Alijaj said he was laid off on March 19. A month later, he doesn’t know if his paper application has been received or is being processed.

Democratic State Rep. Javier Fernandez said he was calling on the state to “just issue checks” and to prioritize sending out payments over auditing applications suspected of abuse.

All we’ve heard thus far from the DeSantis administration is excuses,” Fernandez said. “We should just get them the help they need and we’ll worry about the folks who are going to abuse the system on the back end, to involve the civil and criminal [authorities] ... and crack down on abuses.”

Fernandez added that the state should consider extending unemployment benefits, which is capped at $275 per week.

Meanwhile, Oliva said the claims have overwhelmed the unemployment system, but he is “encouraged” to see the steps DeSantis has taken.

“I share their concern with this and the many other effects of this shutdown,” Oliva said in a statement sent through a spokesman. “It is my hope that people will go this month from an unemployment check to a paycheck very soon.”

Ines Santiesteban lost her job on March 21 as a housekeeper at the Diplomat hotel in Hollywood. She said it took her two days to be able to file an unemployment application, but still doesn’t know the status of her claim.

“Every day I go in and check, every morning, afternoon and night, to see if my application is being processed and nothing changes,” Santiesteban said. “We work really hard but the system doesn’t work.”