ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday that the state is taking exhaustive steps to address widespread state website problems that have prevented thousands from applying for unemployment benefits, though many say the system is still broken.
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There are also indications that some may still have to go several weeks before knowing the status of their application, as the governor also hasn't decided whether benefits will be distributed retroactively.
DeSantis said recent actions should allow the state to speed up processing of applications by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment program. Its jobs site was taken offline overnight Sunday for improvements.
FDOE Executive Director Ken Lawson said the agency is seeing a historic level of applications. More than 520,000 unemployment applications have been filed just since March 15, compared with the 326,653 filed over the entire year of 2019, Lawson said.
Florida tries to fix application problems
Since the surge of unemployment applications, the Department of Economic Opportunity has reportedly spent more than $25 million trying to address the application process riddled with problems.
DeSantis said among those efforts, the state is reassigning 2,000 state employees and hiring more staff to help process applications and man the agency's call centers.
“There are major problems with the website -- problems with how it is designed was pointed out -- but that’s not the issue,” DeSantis said. “It’s a capacity issue.”
Over the weekend, the state also installed 72 servers, which DeSantis said will allow 120,000 simultaneous connections on the state’s website by individuals filing claims, which is more than the 60,000 connections the original 10 servers could handle.
“The flood to the website... The website couldn’t even handle it, so in the situation where people have lost jobs, looking for relief and having difficulty, some people are on the site, it would time out and go hours and hours on end. It was totally unacceptable,” DeSantis said.
However, problems persist, and a backlog of applications continues to grow.
Lawson said Monday that the agency is hoping to process 80,000 claims by the end of the week, leaving hundreds of thousands of applications pending. It will likely be weeks before that can be accomplished.
Website problems remain
Even as DeSantis and Lawson remained optimistic that the problems will be worked out in coming days, some tell Spectrum News that problems still exist.
The most prevalent issues seem to be an online application process that cycles through the same questions or suddenly restarts.
“I was ready to throw my computer against the wall,” Dawn Campbell joked.
She has tried for more than three weeks to help her daughter submit an unemployment application after she was furloughed from her restaurant job in Ormond Beach.
“Nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing changed,” Campbell said.
Campbell said even after a weekend maintenance shutdown of the website, she didn't notice much change in how the site functioned Monday. One issue, she said, is that despite the state temporarily waiving the requirement to prove that an applicant is searching for a new job, the website doesn’t allow you to skip that section without entering information. Questions about being impacted by COVID-19 come at the end of the online application, when they should come at the beginning, critics say.
“Two or three hours a day trying to call... I’ve sent numerous emails with no response, and it’s just unendingly frustrating,” said Tonya Olson, who has been trying to apply for unemployment after stay-at-home orders effectively shut down her mobile physical therapy practice.
In Olson’s case, she hasn't been able to get through to the state’s call center to reset her PIN.
“If they would just share some information," she said. "At the end of the day I think (it's important) for us to know we’re not alone and just to have confidence."
When asked about the system maintenance and ongoing issues, Lawson said his best advice was to keep trying.
“We have increased capacity where we added an addition 72 servers and increased the speed, so I’ll ask to try again and apply,” Lawson said. “If that doesn’t work, fill out a paper application. But the bottom line is what I’ve seen is increased capacity over the last 48 hours. Yesterday (Sunday), 62,000 applications came through. This morning (Monday), 22,000 came through, that shows you the investment in the system is working.”
Retroactive benefits not guaranteed
DeSantis has stopped short of committing to paying benefits retroactively, based on a person’s end of unemployment as opposed to when they applied.
“I told them (state agency directors) to look at that, because if it’s no fault of their own trying to get in the system, and the system is crashing... It frustrated people," DeSantis said.
Federal unemployment benefits differ
The Department of Economic Opportunity will be tasked with distributing federal unemployment benefits to Floridians, a process that DEO Director Lawson said Monday that the agency is still working to develop. Lawson said the agency is hoping to have a system in place by the end of the week to help distribute the $600 weekly payments the federal government is providing through the federal coronavirus aid bill, also called the CARES Act.
The federal legislation is likely to further boost the number of applications, as it has more allowances than Florida, such as “gig economy” workers like Uber and Lyft drivers, as well as those who are self-employed.
Although Florida’s state unemployment system does not provide benefits to gig economy and self-employed individuals, the federal assistance does provide some, meaning people in those lines of work who qualify will have to apply through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in order to obtain the federal benefits.
Long-term future fixes needed
Like COVID-19 testing, unemployment numbers are not thought to be in real time. Future unemployment numbers are expected to grow, as well as the state’s unemployment rate beyond what had been Florida’s 2.8%.
Lawmakers have already been critical of the state’s response, saying former Gov. Rick Scott designed an unemployment system to fail, which DeSantis ignored. The current system was implemented under Scott prior to 2014 at a cost of more than $66 million. A 2019 auditor general report outlined hundreds of issues with the CONNECT system.
Democratic state Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith have been among those saying drastic improvements will be needed, as well as a renewed conversation on how the state may fund long-term unemployment programs.
State economic analysts are expected to release their assessment on how much the state collectively is losing because of the COVID-19 virus and subsequent business closures.
One part in addressing the state’s unemployment program will likely also be the payout amount. At $275 per week for 12 weeks, Florida has one of the lowest benefit payouts and shortest periods of any U.S. state.