Hundreds risk coronavirus exposure in Florida while lining up for blank unemployment form

COVID-19 cases continue to increase across US

A long line of people who didn't have a printer stood outside a building in Hialeah on Tuesday morning to collect an application for unemployment benefits. (Local 10 News)

HIALEAH, Fla. – Epidemiologists have warned large crowds during the coronavirus pandemic can cost lives, yet hundreds of desperate people were willing to risk their health on Tuesday in Hialeah in hopes of starting the process to apply for unemployment benefits.

A long tight line snaked outside of the John F. Kennedy Library before it opened at 11 a.m. They were at 190 W. 49 St. to pick up a copy of a blank form to apply for unemployment insurance benefits, News 6 partner WPLG-TV reported.

“I have a printer, but I don’t have the cartridge,” a woman, who was standing in line, shouted in Spanish.

The epidemiologists’ strategies to lower cases of COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, prompted an unemployment crisis that the state government was not prepared for.

Applicants who had access to the Internet were dealing with error messages and hours of waiting on the phone while calling a helpline that was of no help. Jessica Tellez said she was at the library to pick up forms for all of the members of her family who need them.

The Florida Department of Health has posted an interactive map showing the coronavirus cases in each zip code in Florida.

“My dad is old. He can’t come out ... Everybody out here is risking their lives to get these applications. It’s very hard to do it online because everybody is applying online and the website is crashing,” Tellez said, adding she waited for about three hours.

A Hialeah police officer who was handing out the forms was surrounded by a mob. Hialeah Commissioner Carl Zogby said there was a glut of people who arrived to stand in line early and the demand for the forms had not stopped since.

“We are giving out hundreds and hundreds of applications, but now we are printing out hundreds and hundreds more because we just have more demand,” Zogby said.

Rep. Jose Oliva, Sen. Manny Diaz and Rep. Bryan Avila announced the John F. Kennedy Library and three other locations were going to start distributing copies of the application forms from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Hialeah.

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández said there were people lining up as early as 6-7 a.m. When officers arrived, they refused to move from the line. He said the plan was to do an organized drive-through distribution, but a lot of people didn’t have cars.

“You could see the need. These are not only people from Hialeah. There is people here from the whole county ... There is people who have been out of work for a whole month,” Hernández said.

As the coronavirus pandemic rocks the economic foundations of the nation, more people than ever before are out of work and looking for new employment opportunities. This influx of unemployed Floridians has caused a major upset in the resources put in place to provide relief.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez announced 26 libraries will be distributing forms throughout the county starting Wednesday. The completed application can be returned at any of the libraries’ book drops.

Florida officials shared links of the application forms on the site adding the forms have to be mailed to The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity at P.O. Box 5350 in Tallahassee, FL 32314-5350. Users with access to the Internet are able to download them in Spanish, Creole and English.

Despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts, many unemployed in Miami-Dade County are still having issues submitting applications for benefits after having lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

DeSantis said Monday most of the people affected were blue-collar workers who are unable to perform their jobs at home.

Ken Lawson, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the state agency that handles unemployment insurance benefits, said in a statement they were “all hands on deck” on Tuesday.

“We will not rest until the issues are resolved,” Lawson said.

Jonathan R. Satter, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services, said his agency is supporting the Department of Economic Opportunity. By the end of the week, there will 82 new servers to increase connectivity.

“We will continue to allocate the technical and personnel resources necessary to provide Floridians the level of service they expect and deserve,” Statter said in a statement.

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.