The state’s unemployment portal has been a thorn in Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ side as the self-induced COVID-19 recession left 1.4 million Floridians jobless.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic’s economic effects, Florida ranked as one of the worst states for distributing unemployment benefits. But the Governor was eager to discuss the Department of Economic Opportunity’s (DEO) current state of affairs Tuesday when asked by reporters.
“Aren’t you amazed at how much money we’ve spent, we’ve paid out?” DeSantis said. “Last time you asked me that in this room, we hadn’t paid out very much. What are we at? Definitely 6, 7, 8 billion even.”
Between March 15 and Monday, the state has paid a combined $7.2 billion to 1.5 million claimants. Most of those claims started rolling at the end of April after weeks of holdups.
Another 120,000 claims are currently being verified.
Even as the state is processing more claims, problems persist with the department’s help call line. DEO outsourced its customer service effort to several call centers staffed by employees who, at least at first, didn’t have access to the tools they needed to help inquiring Floridians.
“Those folks at DEO, they have personally called and brought people through the process,” DeSantis said. “When different media folks have said ‘I have ten names of people that have complained to us,’ we’ve taken the names, given it to the agency, and they’ve gone through and really vetted it.”
That marked a different tone than when hundreds of thousands of Floridians were struggling to get paid and DeSantis pulled DEO Secretary Ken Lawson from overseeing the system, instead putting Department of Management Services Secretary Jon Satter in charge. The Governor has called for an investigation of the $77 million unemployment portal commissioned under former Gov. Rick Scott.
Florida has paid out more claimants than there are claimed unemployed Floridians in part, the Governor said, because the state’s count includes gig workers who applied for federal benefits through the state portal.
In May, the unemployment rate reached 14.5%, even as businesses began reopening. Since June 5, the Sunshine State has been on Phase Two of the reopening process, which allowed certain entertainment businesses to open at 50% capacity.
Even as Florida has seen an increasing number of new COVID-19 cases, DeSantis has said the state won’t roll back that reopening progress.
“I’m just glad that we’ve been able to pay out an awful lot of money,” he said Tuesday. “Obviously we’re going to keep doing that as long as folks are unemployed and eligible. I hope we’re going to continue to put people back to work.”