Reports of glitchy encounters with state’s unemployment system still linger after pandemic
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Only about a dozen states have unemployment as low as Florida, but that hasn't cured complaints about the state's online unemployment claims system entirely.

The specter of more than a million unemployed Floridians coming up against a glitchy, crashing benefit claims system to keep food on the table as the COVID-19 emergency spiraled has long faded from headlines amid rosy unemployment numbers.

There’s evidence, however, that the benefit claims system is still causing headaches.

Although just a handful of states have lower unemployment rates than Florida, 38 states had unemployment benefits in claimants’ hands faster than this state did, according to U.S. Department of Labor stats measuring states’ unemployment performance in the last quarter.

Still, Florida is performing better than it did in the second quarter of 2020. Back then, when 1.5 million Floridians needed to access the system, only Hawaii was found to be slower than Florida in processing unemployment claims among the 50 states.

Sean Snaith, Director of the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Institute for Economic Forecasting, said Florida’s basement ratings in handing out unemployment benefits during the pandemic should not have been a surprise given the nature of Florida’s tourist economy.

“The punch we took to the labor market was a little bit harder than other states,” he said, noting that the shutdown hit theme parks, restaurants and bars, resulting in an instantaneous rush for benefits not likely to reoccur.

Still, back in 2021, the situation with the online unemployment benefits system was deemed dire enough that the state summoned state resources to try to find a fix. 

Then-Department of Economic Opportunity Director Dane Eagle in 2021 asked for $244 million to repair the claims system over the next five years, and $56.6 million to that end was put in the 2021-22 spending plan.

As COVID-19 raged, the criticism of the state’s support for the unemployed idled by the shutdowns was blistering enough that U.S. Sen. Rick Scott felt compelled to respond from Washington. Scott argued that No. 1, it was not his state administration that picked the vendor who built the online system and, No. 2, it was not installed to discourage Floridians from filing to collect the insurance they paid into.

Perhaps to keep an army of pitchforked unemployed from storming the Governor’s Mansion, Gov. Ron DeSantis did channel the pain of those with fingers blistered from hitting “refresh.” DeSantis said it seemed to him that the online system’s holdups were a feature, not a bug.

The Department handling the state’s unemployment benefits — once called the Department of Economic Opportunity — has since changed its name to the Department of Commerce. And that Department’s communications office, first queried via email on Aug. 18, has not responded to specific questions about the progress of the upgrade.

A timeline on the department’s site tracking the effort, “Reemployment Assistance Modernization” says that annual reports on the system should start coming this month.

Rep. Anna Eskamani reports that the number of constituent cries for help has plummeted from its pandemic peak when the Orlando Democrat was getting calls from 6,000 people a week. Now her office is overseeing nine cases in her district, she said.

That smaller number tracks with the massive drop in unemployment since the pandemic. But it’s still a major frustration for those affected who have lost their job, and the complaints are familiar.

“The problems we hear right now are very similar — problems with (the identification portion of the process), PIN issues and then major delays in getting things approved,” Eskamani said.

Ask user Sharon Dibble how it works, though, and the West Palm Beach resident who was laid off in mid-September, when her company filed for bankruptcy, she’d rather go in-person to a dusty government office and wait in a line there than go online.

“It’s more stressful trying to get this thing completed than it was losing the job,” said Dibble, who was no closer to getting a check (still among the lowest paying in the country) more than a week after losing her job of 12 years.

“I entered my first and last name, my date of birth, and my Social Security number and it told me this is incorrect information,” Dibble said.

“It’s not incorrect, because I know who I am.”

And it’s not because she has no experience checking boxes and entering the letters into a box. Her job as an online reputation supervisor at a car dealership had her behind a keyboard all day long.

“They make it really, really difficult,” she said, recalling how she got timed out and had to start over again. And then there was trying to get a person to give her a temporary personal identification number.

To hear that the system is still glitching doesn’t surprise UCF’s Snaith, either.

“You’re telling me that a government-run website doesn’t work like Amazon?” he joked. “I’m shocked, shocked.”

Eskamani said she’s encountering constituents experiencing the aftereffects of their pandemic unemployment with a new wrinkle: They are being asked to pay back what benefits they got.

In West Palm Beach, Dibble said she gave up on trying to get unemployment. She ended up getting another job. Still, her experience with the claims system has a familiar ring.

“I simply didn’t have the time required to complete the complicated task,” she said.

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].

One comment

  • Shecky Marino

    October 9, 2023 at 2:14 pm

    How DeSantis run the massive government bureaucracy in DC as President when he can’t even handle the unemployment system of one state as Governor?

Comments are closed.


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