Florida unions seek improvements for unemployment benefits

Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity has received more than 103,000 applications for reemployment assistance this week

ORLANDO, Fla. – Floridians have overloaded the state’s unemployment website and jammed phone lines trying to apply for benefits amid the spread of the coronavirus.

“I tried different times during the day to (apply), so that maybe there were less people on the website because I know that I’m not the only person who’s applying for this,” said Taylor Hackett.

Hackett said she lost her job on the campus of the University of Central Florida about two weeks ago.

She said she still cannot apply for unemployment benefits online.

“It kicked me out -- probably out of all the times I’ve been trying -- over 40 times,” she said.

Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity has received more than 103,000 applications for reemployment assistance this week, a significant spike from the nearly 5,400 applications it received the week of March 7.

To address complaints of the struggle to reach the agency personnel the DEO has expanded its call center hours and is hiring more than 100 people to answer phones.

The state agency said it is also trying to improve its website interface and increase server capacity to better handle the large volume of applications.

"With this unprecedented event in our state, we are asking everyone to have continued patience," said Tiffany Vause, DEO's director of communications. "If you have trouble filing your claim, please try again later."

“It’s nice that they’re having more people hired, and that’s giving some people employment, but at the same time, how long is that process going to take to train these people to do this job?” Hackett asked.

Leaders from more than 100 Florida labor unions sent a letter to the governor late Thursday urging him to expand unemployment benefit eligibility and improve the application process.

The unions are seeking an expansion of the state's current weekly benefit payment that ranges from $32 to $275, based on the recipient's prior income.

Union representatives also want to expand the time recipients can collect benefits from the current 12-week cap to 26 weeks.

“As COVID-19 continues to cause our schools, churches, and businesses to shut down, families must now struggle to keep themselves safe without a source of income,” the union letter stated. “Florida’s Reemployment Assistance program is our safeguard from economic catastrophe.”

Last week, DeSantis temporarily eliminated requirements that people receiving unemployment benefits must be actively searching for a job.

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