74,000 Floridians seek jobless benefits, a tenfold increase, amid coronavirus outbreak

COVID-19 cases increase in Florida, US

ORLANDO, Fla. – More than 74,000 Floridians applied for unemployment benefits last week, a tenfold increase from the previous week, as the spread of the novel coronavirus shut down the state's theme parks and visitors stayed away from its hotels and airports, officials said Thursday.

The extraordinary jump in unemployment benefits applications came the same week that the largest theme park resorts in Florida — Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa — closed their gates and emptied their hotels, cruise lines halted trips and Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended on-premise food and alcohol consumption at Florida restaurants and bars.

Disney World and Universal Orlando promised to pay workers during the first two weeks they planned to be closed, but secondary businesses such as nearby hotels and restaurants, event planners and caterers were hurt by the closures.

Across the U.S., nearly 3.3 million workers applied for jobless benefits.

Other states with smaller populations — Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio — had double the number of applicants for unemployment benefits as Florida, a state criticized by lawmakers and labor leaders for offering paltry benefits with burdensome conditions. Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week for 12 weeks.

Some applicants have complained that the process is too difficult.

Douglas Restrepo, 47, worked as an employee at a clothing store in an outdoor shopping center facing Biscayne Bay in downtown Miami until last week. When Miami-Dade County ordered non-essential businesses shut down, his manager let him and other employees go.

Restrepo tried to file his unemployment claim through an online portal run by the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity, but has been struggling to access his account since he can’t remember login details from when he was last unemployed for two weeks five years ago.

“I have been trying to get through them. They are not answering my calls. I understand a lot of people are trying to get unemployment, but this has been very difficult,” Restrepo said.

DeSantis has eased up on some of the requirements, issuing an executive order this week that eliminates the need for applicants to apply to five jobs a week to receive benefits.

Florida labor leaders on a conference call Thursday demanded that DeSantis reform the unemployment benefits system in order to make it easier for out-of-work residents to access $4 billion in a trust fund for the system. The governor needs to simplify the application process and hire more workers to process applications, they said.

Maxine Jackson, a housekeeper at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort in Miami Beach said when she called the unemployment benefits phone number Thursday after getting laid off last week, she was put on hold and then the phone went dead. When she tried to call back, the line was busy.

“I’m kind of frustrated right now,” Jackson said on the conference call. “I’m worried about how I’m going to put food on my table for my kids. You call in and get no answer. It’s ridiculous.”

Florida had almost 1.3 million leisure and hospitality jobs in January, and Orlando was the most visited destination in the U.S. with 75 million visitors in 2018. Industry experts expect that sector to be decimated by the coronavirus-related closures. The U.S. Travel Association earlier this week estimated that 5.9 million jobs would be lost by the end of April due to declining travel.

Wendi Walsh, secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 355, which represents 6,000 workers in South Florida, said the state was looking at a 90 percent unemployment rate for hospitality workers.

“Workers at this point are anxious, scared,” Walsh said. “They’re angry and they’re looking for help but the unemployment system isn’t providing help.”

The renowned, 1950s-built Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach offers a glimpse of the breadth of job losses in the hospitality industry. It notified state officials last week it was laying off 257 workers, including servers, cooks, beach attendants, bellmen, front desk agents, engineers, massage therapists, a hair stylist and a nail technician.

The pandemic has led the hotel to experience a “sudden and dramatic loss of business," general manager Michael Chin wrote in a letter to state economic officials.

Florida's unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in January. Earlier this week, DeSantis said he was anticipating not only economic consequences from job losses, but also other problems such as drug abuse and domestic violence.

“We had such an embarrassment of riches with our unemployment rate,” DeSantis said. “What a different world it was where the agency was overstaffed just a few weeks ago probably from what the claims were. Now we are in a different situation.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.


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