Florida unemployment call center workers hit roadblocks trying to help unemployed, lawmaker says

Internal DEO messages obtained by Sen. Jason Pizzo show some call takers aren’t able to help

Internal records obtained by a state lawmaker suggest jobless Floridians may not always receive help when they call the Department of Economic Opportunity’s phone lines seeking assistance with their unemployment benefit claims.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Internal records obtained by a state lawmaker suggest jobless Floridians may not always receive help when they call the Department of Economic Opportunity’s phone lines seeking assistance with their unemployment benefit claims.

“They expressed to me that they felt like they were basically cheating,” said State Sen. Jason Pizzo about his conversations with call center workers contracted by Florida’s DEO. “They knew going into an entire shift of work that not a single (benefit applicant) would be able to be processed all the way through. That was unsettling to them.”

Pizzo posted on Twitter a series of internal electronic messages that reportedly show a call center worker unsuccessfully trying to get assistance from a supervisor on behalf of a claimant.

News 6 could not independently authenticate the messages, which Pizzo said he obtained from a call center worker known to him.

“I have someone on the line who needs to speak to a supervisor. They are a Disney employee,” the unidentified call center worker wrote in the electronic message.

One minute later a supervisor reportedly responded, "I am new and I do not have access to CONNECT yet," referring to the state's unemployment benefit computer system.

The call center worker was then put in contact with another supervisor.

"I don't have access to (the) DEO portal unfortunately right now. I am waiting on credentials," that supervisor wrote, according to the records provided by Pizzo.

A third supervisor was also not much help, the messages show.

“No, love, I’m sorry. I’m starting today,” the supervisor reportedly responded.

It is unknown whether the Disney employee described in the messages ever received assistance.

Pizzo said he has heard from jobless Floridians who are so frustrated with the unemployment benefit process they have threatened to take their own life.

“Just last night we had somebody who posted on social media that they walked into oncoming traffic (but) all the cars veered away from her,” Pizzo said. “That’s a particular case where I called someone at the governor’s office and said, ‘Call this woman now.’ And they did.”

The DEO sent News 6 a statement after being contacted about the messages. Read it in its entirety below:

"DEO recognizes that many individuals are seeking an improved level of customer service that Floridians expect during this unprecedented time. To quickly serve Floridians, in March, DEO took immediate action to begin increasing staffing so that DEO could best serve Floridians impacted by COVID-19. DEO hired multiple contact center vendors to quickly assist Floridians and our agency. Since late March, DEO has been able to add more than additional nearly 6,000 contact center representatives through our contracted contact centers and our DEO team members.

"DEO’s strategy was to the hit the ground running, so DEO immediately began training these individuals on the top issues that were preventing Floridians from completing their applications, such as PIN resets and Frequently Asked Questions, to ensure they could serve Floridians quickly. This enabled our seasoned DEO employees to prioritize claim specific questions and allow our third party contact center providers time to learn the system which ensured Floridians got paid, quickly. This week, 200 of those new contracted team members received and completed the full training and can now provide full claim-specific help to Floridians.

"To understand the volume of calls DEO receives, the week ending March 8, DEO received 28,000 calls and the week ending March 14, DEO received 224,000 calls. Since March 15, DEO has received more than 15 million calls. To put in perspective, an average call takes 20 minutes to from start to finish on claim-specific questions.

"DEO provides answers to frequently asked questions and answers to all of the call center representatives to ensure they have an understanding of reemployment assistance benefits, and the knowledge they need to assist Floridians. DEO has utilized a phased training approach to make trained call center representatives available to respond to the high-volume requests as quickly as possible.

"DEO has mandated to all contact center vendors that all contact center representatives should be Floridians.

“Serving Floridians during this unprecedented economic and public health crisis continues to be the number one priority of DEO.”

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.