Governor Ron DeSantis has brought in hundreds more state workers. He's added computer servers. He created a paper application system. And still, massive problems persist in the state's online system for filing for unemployment benefits. The mess in the Department of Economic Opportunity has forced the governor to shake things up, but with the latest unemployment numbers jumping sharply and few claims being paid, there are fears things could get worse.
The state Department of Economic Opportunity, faced with a massive backlog of new claims, posted an estimated 4.3% March unemployment rate Friday, up from 2.8 percent in February.
However, the March number fails to provide a full picture of the economic devastation brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Officials were quick to note that the March rate --- reflecting an estimated 444,000 Floridians out of work from a workforce of 10.3 million --- shows where the state was in mid-March. That was just when amusement parks and Major League Baseball spring training games were being shut down, but still before many businesses closed or dramatically scaled back.
“The March labor statistics reflect some of the early effects of the coronavirus and efforts to contain it,” a news release from the Department of Economic Opportunity said.
How bad is it? Even the governor himself can't get accurate and timely information from DEO on how well it is processing hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims. So Wednesday, DeSantis decided he'd had enough.
DEO Secretary Ken Lawson was pushed aside as chief overseer of the benefits system. He's still DEO secretary, but DeSantis took the highly unusual step of bringing in another agency head, Jonathan Satter in the Department of Management Services, in the latest attempt to repair the broken benefits system.
"We need to know exactly how many claims are paid. Not just on a daily basis but on an hourly basis. I don't think that the response has been sufficient in that regard," DeSantis said.
Thursday the Governor announced payments have gone out to upwards of 33,000 out-of-work Floridians, about 5% of the current claims. There are hundreds of thousands more awaiting payment.
Only last week, Lawson was seated at DeSantis' side as the governor fielded questions about the system's problems. But the governor called it "unacceptable" that even he couldn't get timely information on how many people have filed claims and are getting money.
"I must have tried to log on to their site over a hundred times yesterday."
One of the many who's not getting his money is Freddy. He lives in Aventura and is part of what was a very large and thriving South Florida gig economy. He works with musicians and performing artists and asked that we not use his last name. But his life has become one long exercise in frustration as he tries to qualify online for Florida's jobless benefits of $275 a week for a maximum of 12 weeks, one of the lowest, shortest payouts in the country. He can't navigate the system.
"As soon as I would hit the submit button, the system would crash and take me back to the first page and tell me to start submitting the information all over again. It's insanity. It's literally the definition of insanity. I feel so sorry for people in Florida that are starving that are sick, that can't pay their bills. It's impossible. It's the most frustrating thing in the world."
The gig worker said the DEO site does not even provide help on how independent contractors like himself, who are waiting for $600 dollar checks under a federal stimulus package, can qualify for state benefits.
State Rep. Dan Daley of Coral Springs said he has been inundated with calls from constituents who are desperate for help. He said they keep getting a prompt on their computers that says "Pending Status." To make matters worse, the state response has been an icy silence.
"I've got 160 of my constituents that I have personally referred to the agency. I've been assured that they would hear back," Daley said. "They were going to get a phone call. They were going to get something. It's been four or five weeks --and nothing."
Daley is frantic because he sees news reports that Disney and other large employers are about to furlough tens of thousands of workers, who also may be flooding the system.
The lawmaker fired off a letter late Tuesday to DEO saying, “I'm demanding that their issues be addressed. A 'Pending Status' does not put food on the table."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.