ORLANDO, Fla. – Ill-equipped to handle the hundreds of thousands of applications a week from Floridians unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is scrambling to hire people to meet the demand, including working with an outside vendor to increase staffing and adding a mobile-friendly application process.
However, for those going without pay, the improvements aren’t happening fast enough.
For the benefit week ending March 21, 74,000 Floridians applied for unemployment benefits, a tenfold increase from the previous week, as the spread of the COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, caused businesses to shutter, laying off workers across the state.
The jobless rate and applications incoming to FloridaJobs.org continue to surge, the latest numbers from the DEO show. Last week, Florida received 222,054 applications for assistance. On Sunday alone, more than 21,100 people applied, according to the DEO.
Those numbers would likely be greater if the system handling the request was able to handle the influx of applications and calls.
News 6 has received dozens of reports from people trying to apply who say they are unable to use the website and can’t get through when they try to speak to a person at Florida Reemployment Assistance Call Center.
On Monday, state democratic leaders called on Gov. Ron DeSantis to take more action, asking the governor to expand the number of weeks eligible applicants can receive benefits and increase unemployment to more than $275 a week.
“We are working on it, but this is not just zero to 60," DeSantis said Monday. "This is like zero to 120 trying to do it.”
[INFOGRAPHIC: Chart shows number of claims filed]
What about contractors, gig workers and the self-employed?
A $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill, known as the CARES Act, signed by President Donald Trump last week would provide an additional $600 a week, for four months, to people who qualify for jobless benefits.
The bill also expanded benefits to contractors and gig workers who previously didn’t qualify for Florida unemployment benefits. Those workers now qualify for federal benefits but they will still have to work through their state’s unemployment system which means the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will have even more applications.
Over the weekend, Ken Lawson, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor to execute the CARES Act in Florida.
“The team at DEO is working diligently to get the resources provided through the CARES Act to Floridians as soon as possible and will be providing more information in the coming days,” DEO Director of Communications Tiffany Vause said.
On Monday, 12 U.S. House representatives from Florida sent a letter to DeSantis asking him to “do whatever is necessary to ensure self-employed workers and independent contractors are able to access the unemployment benefits under the CARES Act.”
DeSantis said Florida is currently awaiting further guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor.
What are they doing to handle the new applications?
Last week, the DEO executive director signed a contract with a customer care- IT company, with the ability to add 250 representatives to the Florida Reemployment Assistance Call Center.
The DEO will also be adding a minimum of 50 additional employees to the team this week and are continuing to interview more people. Initially, the DEO planned to add at least 100 new staff members to handle the call load and applications.
The DEO is also accepting bids from companies to provide a mobile-friendly application that would allow people to apply for benefits from their smartphones or devices. A spokesperson for the department said they expect to sign a contract this week.
If you’ve previously applied for benefits and can’t access your account
People who have previously received benefits from the state are reporting they are locked out of the system and can’t speak with someone to retrieve their PIN numbers.
According to the DEO, a significant workload for the Reemployment Assistance Team has been resetting PIN numbers for Floridians accessing the online Reemployment Assistance application, CONNECT.
By the end of the week, the department will add 50 contractors to assist Floridians who need help resetting their PINs and accessing their CONNECT accounts.
“It boots me totally out of the system. I have to go back in and log in again,” said Jonathan Sangas as he described his difficulty applying for benefits on the state’s website and phone line. “I cannot get a hold of anyone. Not a single human being.”
Sangas said he's been trying to obtain unemployment benefits since he was laid off from his job as a chef two weeks ago.
“I have no idea how much money I’m getting. I have no idea when it is coming,” he told News 6.
Sangas's girlfriend, who was recently notified that she would soon be furloughed from her job, is dreading the moment she must also seek help from the state.
“If they’re having issues now, what’s going to happen in 2 to 3 weeks when mine comes up?” asked Kelli Boyer. “I’m petrified.”