Unemployment claims system upgrade on track, could include online chat

Conceptual business photo is showing printed tex unemployment claim
System glitches left many unable to access unemployment benefits when the pandemic hit.

An unemployment claims system supported with online chat help could be among the upgrades the Department of Economic Opportunity adds when it modernizes the beleaguered system, according to a House subcommittee update Wednesday.

Adrienne Johnston, deputy secretary of the Department of Economic Opportunity’s Division of Workforce Services, gave a briefing to the House Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee on what’s being done with the $71.9 million the DEO received last Session to fix problems in the state’s unemployment claims system that emerged in March 2020 amid the pandemic-spurred employment crisis.

At that time, millions tried to file for unemployment benefits as COVID-19 shutdowns fueled job losses, overwhelming the system. Desperate constituents lit up state lawmakers’ inboxes and phone lines with pleas for help getting through the system glitches that left them unable to claim their benefits.

Hours spent on the reemployment assistance help center line, only to be disconnected, were among the problems reported. So, Rep. Emily Slosberg of Boca Raton wanted to know whether an online chat feature might be part of the new system.

“We are exploring all the options — absolutely,” Johnston replied.

But instituting that sort of chat will not be as simple as it is for companies that have it for customers encountering a glitch paying their credit card or cable bill, she added.

“A lot of the interaction that we have with claimants requires documentation,” she said. “It’s critical that claimants and employers have a way to give that to us in a secure means.”

Slosberg also wanted to know whether the new system would be optimized for people using mobile devices.

“That is one of the key requirements,” Johnston said.

Johnston said some parts of the system modernization efforts that started earlier this year have been completed ahead of schedule, but upgrading the entire system is a multiyear process that will involve 20 different projects. The timeline shows the work is scheduled to continue until at least October 2023 and beyond.

Johnston said the upgrade is on track but has its challenges.

“DEO is not immune to the global competitive job market and has faced some challenges in securing and retaining specialized IT talent, specifically,” Johnston said.

A “significant” backlog remains from the deluge of claims the department faced during the pandemic, Johnston said. Weekly claims right now are at about 3,000 — slightly less than when the pandemic started, she said.

Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando said she’s hearing from significantly fewer than the 6,000 people a week who were contacting her office at the height of the pandemic, but the user experience of the state’s glitchy online claims system remains the same, she said.

Right now, there are about 200 people on her office’s “urgent list.”

“These are crisis cases — folks who are missing a lot of money, might be facing an eviction/already homeless or who have expresse(d) suicidal ideation,” Eskamani texted.

Similarly, Rep. Dan Daley of Coral Springs says he’s hearing much less frustration among his constituents, but that’s because the system is not under the stress it was back in March and April of 2020.

“We need to keep the pressure on to make sure we are doing everything we can to fix the system,” Daley said.

Slosberg said she got answers to her questions, but there are still lingering concerns.

“The DEO is about 15% into the modernization project,” she said. “I am hopeful the backlog and the new claims will be addressed more efficiently.”

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


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