FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A half-million Floridians applied for unemployment benefits last week, according to figures released Thursday, as a statewide task force continued examining when businesses shuttered and forced to lay off workers because of the new coronavirus can reopen.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported that more than 505,000 Floridians filed initial claims for unemployment benefits last week, pushing the state's number of claims well past 1 million since businesses around the state started closing last month under lockdown orders from municipalities and then Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The number of unemployed Floridians could actually be much higher since problems with online filing have been widespread. The state's civilian workforce is about 10 million.
Officials have acknowledged that the Department of Economic Opportunity was ill-equipped to handle the deluge of applications. As of Tuesday, 1.7 million claims had been submitted but only 679,000 had been verified. Because of the problems with filing, people may have submitted more than one application through multiple methods, the agency said.
As of Tuesday, around 16% of the confirmed claimants had been paid $143 million, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Mike Rogers, 64, was fired from his part-time retail job last month and filled out his unemployment application the next day. It has been in “pending status” with no update or funds, and he says he and his wife have cut costs as much as they can.
“The worst part is that Gov. DeSantis cannot or will not give a straight answer," said Rogers, a Palm Bay resident. “One gets the feeling that nobody has a clue.”
The state's confirmed coronavirus infections since last month is nearing 30,000, with 4,500 people currently hospitalized. There have been at least 960 deaths.
Meanwhile, the governor's task force that will make recommendations for reopening the economy met for the fourth straight day with a goal of making recommendations Friday.
“This does not mean it's the end,” DeSantis's chief of staff Shane Strum told the committee. “We're trying to just make sure we try to bring everything forward in a quick manner, as people are really anxious to get back open.”
Strum said the governor's staff will go through the recommendations over the weekend, synthesize them and then report back to the task force and it's subcommittees for further review.
Subcommittees on various sectors reported Thursday:
— Agriculture: The state's farmers have lost more than a half-billion dollars in crops over the last month, said Mike Joyner, the president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. He said much of the loss has come from the near-shutdown of institutional buyers such as hotels, restaurants and schools. He said those unused crops and products cannot simply be re-routed to supermarkets because they are already fully supplied. He said food banks and charities are also turning away donated food because their storage areas are full. Still, Publix announced Thursday it is buying 150,000 pounds (68,000 kilograms) of produce and 43,500 gallons (164,665 litres) of milk for donation to food banks in the Southeastern U.S.
— Hospitals: Mary Mayhew, the secretary of Florida's Agency for Healthcare Administration, said as the state's hospitals have been cleared of patients except for COVID-19 and others seriously ill, the percentage of occupied beds has fallen from almost 90% to less than 60% over the last month, costing them millions in revenue. She said hospitals lose on average more than $6,000 per COVID-19 patient because of the extra care and staff needed to treat them. John Couris, the CEO of Tampa General Hospital, called on the governor to again allow elective surgeries beginning May 9 as planned. He said elective surgeries such as gall bladder removal and joint replacement can only be delayed so long before they potentially create long-term or dangerous health problems.
— Education: Eric Hall, senior chancellor at the Florida Department of Education, said preschools reopening will be a key part to getting parents back to work, particularly in communities that have a high need. He said the state should do mapping to show where there are gaps and where centers are open. Evelio Torres, president and CEO of the Miami-Dade County Early Learning Coalition pointed out that in a state as diverse as Florida, the plan to reopen preschools needs to be adapted to different regions.
— Construction: AJ de Moya, the vice president of a Miami-based highway and bridge construction company, told his subcommittee that while road work has continued, 40% of the state's overall construction workforce is at risk of unemployment. He said the Great Recession decimated the construction workforce and the state can't afford that again.
Farrington reported from Tallahassee. Associated Press writers Mike Schneider in Orlando, Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale and Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.