Receiving Florida unemployment benefits better be easier for Ian’s victims than it was for COVID’s | Editorial

MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com

Those left jobless by Hurricane Ian, mainly the thousands of people who worked in the tourism industry in Sanibel, Fort Myers and Naples and Pine Island, are about to learn whether the state’s improved unemployment website will handle the load more effectively than it did during the COVID-19 pandemic. It better. These hurricane-stunned Floridians do not need another headache.

In 2020, when the pandemic left service, hospitality and retail workers from Miami to the Panhandle without employment, many experienced inhumane wait times and log-on problems with the CONNECT system to claim to request benefits. CONNECT crashed repeatedly. The unemployed could not be blamed for thinking the state did not want them to receive benefits.

Now it’s a new year and a new disaster for Florida’s working people, many of whom helped sustain the tourism industry in hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties.

Sunday, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity issued this statement in anticipation of another onslaught of unemployment claims this week:

“Right now, Floridians impacted by Hurricane Ian are trying to meet their critical needs, and what they don’t need are roadblocks interfering with their recovery,” said DEO Secretary Dane Eagle in a news release. “Gov. DeSantis’ swift action to cut red tape and waive reporting requirements for reemployment assistance is the right choice to get families the help they need to get back on their feet faster, and DEO stands ready to distribute this vital assistance as quickly as possible.”

The release added, “Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) is available to Florida businesses and residents in FEMA disaster-declared counties whose employment or self-employment was lost or interrupted as a direct result of Hurricane Ian and are not eligible for regular state or Federal Reemployment Assistance benefits.”

The state has made filing easier by lifting the requirement that the jobless search for new employment immediately.

That’s great news. It will be greater still if the whole thing functions smoothly. After all, in 2021, the Florida Legislature allocated $72 million for DEO to transform CONNECT into a fully cloud-based system over the next two years. It’s unclear how much work has been done, and we know the state was in the process of hiring 435 more people for behind-the-scenes work.

Last year, Eagle gave the end of the summer 2022 as the date when the streamlined system would be working.

That’s right about now, meaning CONNECT has to get it right this time. The state cannot add insult — again — to shell-shocked Floridians’ injury.