TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The head of the state agency distributing unemployment benefits acknowledged Thursday that Floridians are experiencing difficulties applying for aid and vowed to improve the jobless assistance program.
"You need to understand that, from my heart, I apologize for what you are going through," Florida Department of Economic Opportunity director Ken Lawson said in a video conference hosted by a state lawmaker. "You can count on us to do everything we can, and we're not going to stop."
In addition to the agency's website and phone system used to accept unemployment benefit applications, Lawson announced his staff will soon create paper applications that can be filled out by hand and mailed in.
Last week 227,000 Floridians applied for unemployment benefits, but the number of people needing assistance is likely much higher since many applicants reported having trouble using the DEO's website and phone line.
"In early March we had nearly 28,000 calls coming into the call center. Last week we had over a million," said Tiffany Vause, the agency's communications director. "We are doing everything we can to increase our capability as quickly as possible."
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order Thursday instructing all state agency heads to identify personnel who can assist DEO in collecting and processing unemployment benefit applications, which the state calls “reemployment assistance”.
The DEO recommends applicants try visiting its website early in the morning or late in the evening when fewer people are online.
Vause also suggests applicants compile all paperwork and required information before beginning the application process so they do not have to log back into the system later. The agency created a video explaining those requirements.
Eligible Floridians can receive a maximum of $275 in state unemployment assistance for a maximum of 12 weeks.
Under the CARES Act passed by Congress last week, an additional $600 in federal dollars will be provided to eligible recipients and the state's time period will be extended an additional 13 weeks.
That federal money will be routed through the state DEO, which has not yet announced how it will distribute to the funds to new unemployment recipients and those who have already collected their full state benefits in 2020.
"Every member of our team is working on making sure that funding comes through our system so folks get that as soon as possible," said Vause.
An audit conducted by Florida’s Auditor General last year identified numerous problems with the agency’s computer system that handles unemployment benefits.
Several of the issues had not been corrected following a previous audit, records show.
"Our team has been working since the audit came out to correct those issues," Vause said.
The troubled computer system was installed in 2013 as part of a major overhaul of the unemployment benefits program initiated by former governor Rick Scott.
Now a U.S. senator, Scott expressed faith in the system created by his former administration.
“I’m optimistic that, with the system, we put in place and the automation we put in place, it will make sure things can work faster,” Scott told News 6 Monday.