The state failed jobless Floridians who are now giving up securing unemployment benefits missed because of the faulty state unemployment portal, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said.
Fried, the only Democratic member of the Cabinet, was the lone Cabinet member in the room for Thursday’s meeting, the first in months. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, the Commissioner said Floridians are frustrated with the unemployment system.
“They’re going back to work and putting their lives at risk because they can’t wait for not only the state’s unemployment system but also getting their federal dollars,” Fried said. “They don’t have a choice anymore but to go back to work. And they don’t have four to six hours every day to go onto the unemployment system to be waiting online to be talking to call center employees who are frustrated because they too don’t have the right answers to give.”
The CONNECT portal may have stabilized some, and Floridians have received $3.5 billion in unemployment benefits. Still, many Floridians are stuck with problems that can only be fixed manually by a Department of Economic Opportunity representative. But calls to the department’s service center can take hours to finally reach a representative, leading many still owed state and federal dollars to give up on the process.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has outlined a reopening process he calls measured, safe and smart, has made restoring the economy a priority alongside protecting the health of at-risk Floridians. But getting restaurants back open and getting tourism underway won’t repay the lost wages missed since March.
“While they may be going back to work, they still have now two months-worth of back pay on electric bills and leases on cars and gas payments that have to be made, and unfortunately, the state failed,” Fried said.
The Commissioner and other Democrats have questioned whether the reopening process has been safe. She said not a single person in Seaside, where she visited Memorial Day weekend, was wearing a mask, and restaurants were operating at full capacity despite restrictions.
“It’s wonderful that we’re seeing that economy open back up, but at the potential detriment for the individuals that were participating in it,” she added.
The “disproportionate response” between policies for at-risk people and others has been unfortunate, she added. She spoke about her 90-year-old grandmother living in Palm Beach County, one of the state’s COVID-19 hot spots, and lamented that children’s summer camps are reopening, but she can’t yet tell her grandmother to play card games with friends.
“Why we closed schools to begin with is because we know that our youth, unfortunately, can still carry, and they can carry it over to their parents and grandparents, and so it’s unfortunate,” Fried said.
And while gyms were supposed to remain closed during the first part of Phase One, she said her office reached out to open gyms that said the Governor’s Office told them they could reopen.
“There’s an extreme confusion. That’s been since day one,” she said. “That’s why I was critical of this piecemealing approach of shutting down, and now we’re relying back on our local governments.”