State's system for handling job losses is overwhelmed

  • The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's website is crashing due to the almost 2 million unemployment applications submitted since March 15. Metro Creative Connection
    The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's website is crashing due to the almost 2 million unemployment applications submitted since March 15. Metro Creative Connection
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The federal and state responses to the coronavirus pandemic have come in many forms, including changes to unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs. In Florida, taxpayers pay in 2.7% of the first $7,000 they make each year to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for unemployment insurance. People who lose their job can receive a $275 per week maximum unemployment insurance benefit, and people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic are eligible for an additional $600 per week in federal funds.

According to Forbes, 78% of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, so a safety net like unemployment payments should help alleviate the pain, but many unemployed Floridians are feeling even more stress as they attempt to deal with the process of applying for benefits in the first place. Some have spent hours and hours on the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s website and weeks waiting for the benefits.

Joe Norman is one such Floridian. Norman applied for unemployment insurance after he was laid off from his construction job in April.

“I applied online April 16, and got a case number,” Norman said. “The website told me my case was ‘resolved.’ Then I got an email saying they needed more information. But when I tried to get back in the system, the website was down.”

In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order intended to improve the response of the DEO to the applications and DEO installed 72 new servers so it could handle up to 120,000 simultaneous connections by individuals filing claims, published a paper application that people could complete and mail in, hired a call center, streamlined the training process, and trained more than 200 people to more quickly answer calls, but an already overwhelmed website and system still became buried under themore than 1.8 million claims submitted to DEO from March 15 to May 5.

Tim Dean was laid off from his sales job March 21. He began to apply for benefits immediately, and said he was on his computer for hours, the website crashing over and over. He ultimately got through the process online March 29.

“That first week, I was on the computer around the clock,” Dean said. “I got a case number, but when I tried to verify that I had been approved for benefits, the website would say I had not registered, and then shut down. I got up in the morning and got on my computer, and kept the website up all day, and it would crash over and over.”

Dean’s issues were ultimately resolved, and he is currently receiving his weekly unemployment benefits with the federal supplement. However, each week when he applies for another week of benefits, he says it is, on average, a six-hour process. “The website shuts down, kicks me out, over and over,” Dean said. “You just have to keep at it, every week.”

Ashley Marincil was working at a bed and breakfast before it shut down. Marincil was laid off April 2 and started applying for benefits the next day. She heard about the issues with the DEO’s website, so she got a paper application from the Nassau County Chamber of Commerce and mailed it to DEO, along with applying for benefits online. It still took almost a month before she made any progress on the website.

“I got to submit it on April 30 online,” Marincil said. “Before it would always kick me off in the middle of the application and give an error page.” Marincil has not received a confirmation email or letter, and still tries to confirm her status on the DEO website, but the site is slow and often does not work at all.

Neither Norman or Marincil have received any benefits or any confirmation that they will.

“I don’t know how much longer we can do this,” Norman said. “Soon, my family won’t have grocery money.”

Marincil said the uncertainty is frustrating.

“From a young adult who lives paycheck to paycheck, having your income come to a halt is stressful,” she said. “The unemployment process has been frustrating, and has left many people in the dark without any sort of knowledge when they will be financially supported during this crisis.”

On May 12, Norman got confirmation on the DEO website that he would receive a payment, more than a month after he began the process. But, after that confirmation, he was told he would have to furnish businesses to which he had applied for a job, although that requirement has been waived by DeSantis. Norman called DEO and was put on hold. A recording told him there was a two-hour wait time. Norman had still not made contact with DEO as of Tuesday afternoon.

The News-Leadermade calls and sent emails to the DEO, but received no replies by the press deadline Tuesday.

A 38-page guide to applying for benefits via the DEO can be found here: https://bit.ly/3ctsOuG.