ORLANDO, Fla. — The new director of the state’s failing unemployment system, which has been battered with demands for an overhaul, says his agency is preparing for permanent fixes.
What You Need To Know
- Florida DEO working on permanent fixes to unemployment system
- Some people say they've been waiting months to receive all benefits owed to them
- Agency's newest director says 97% of claims filed through CONNECT are processed without delay
It’s been more than eight months since a surge of layoffs and furloughs overwhelmed Florida’s problem-plagued unemployment system.
Some still say they’ve been waiting months to receive the full benefits owed to them.
“It’s very challenging, nobody there seems they want to help,” said Marc Navarro, who was laid off from his job at Walt Disney World after six years. “The struggles I’ve gone through, not eating for weeks, almost getting evicted.”
Navarro says he was forced to sell his car to make ends meet.
Navarro’s story is among countless others told this year as frustrated Floridians grew more anxious and desperate for help.
“I spent the first few weeks really deep diving,” Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped the former state representative to take over FL DEO in September, becoming the third state executive to oversee the unemployment system this year.
Eagle says despite FL DEO having a wide spectrum of programs and responsibilities, the focus remains on fixing the unemployment problems.
Eagle adds there is progress, saying 97% of claims filed through CONNECT are processed without delay.
“There’s that 3% that gets caught up in the system, whether it’s an IT issue or maybe needs backdating or adjudication or appeals process,” Eagle said. “Those take individual one-on-one attention from a skilled worker, so we’re making sure we’re ramped up and we have the employees we need and I think we’re on the right track.”
Eagle said the agency has hired more than 200 employees for various roles since he started in September, adding they are petitioning the Florida Legislature for funding to hire an addition 100 agency staffers.
“We’re not done until we can make sure we’re assisting everybody and we’re working on doing that,” Eagle said. “…what I can tell them (claimants with issues) we are listening, they may think they’re a black hole and no one can hear them, but we’re dedicated to making sure that we assist them in their claim.”
At the height of the crisis, DEO spent tens of millions of dollars hiring thousands of call center agents from three third party companies to help process calls and claims.
While DeSantis rejected Democratic lawmakers’ calls for a special session to address unemployment issues, the governor did order an internal review of the system itself.
Eagle told Spectrum News that the agency has since launched an additional outside investigation to review every aspect of the unemployment system in an effort to fix any outstanding issues.
“The agency procured another third party to do this review of the system itself so we can make internal decisions and not wait on the audit, but more of an IT deep dive into what the system is doing, what it could be doing right, what we can do to fix it and what needs to go out the window,” Eagle said. “We’re going to look at that and hopefully have it in time for session so we can go to the Legislature with that review and give us knowledge of what we need to do to fix it going forward.”
There have been few promises made by Congress to extended additional benefits beyond those that expire January 26. Florida lawmakers have also made no promises to address calls for extending unemployment benefits during its next session in March 2021.
Eagle says DEO is working to get a program online to distribute federal extended benefits already owed.
Eagle said the agency should be able to begin retroactively providing extended benefits to qualified claimants by early December.
Demand and complaints about the unemployment system have decreased in recent months, in part because Floridians are exhausting the benefits allowed.
While the state’s unemployment rate will extend state benefits from 12 weeks to 19 weeks starting January 1, 2021, those additional seven weeks of benefits will only be available to new claimants, not those currently unemployed.