As jobless rates skyrocket, filing for unemployment benefits in Florida can feel like a seemingly impossible task. Many filers have reported website crashes and several hours spent waiting on hold. Governor Ron DeSantis has added more workers, new servers, and made other changes to the system in an attempt to address the issues. Now as some unemployed Floridians are finalizing their applications, they’re turning their focus to another issue – getting approved for those benefits.
Rich Templin with the AFL-CIO says Floridians who lost their jobs and struggled to access the unemployment system are beginning to have better luck now. But he says now there’s a new crisis forming.
"As more and more workers are making it through that process they are beginning to be told they are eligible for nothing," Templin said.
Yvette Cruz was fired from her food service job with Disney on March 27.
"It took me eight days to get into the system to apply. Then after a month of me trying to call the number being busy, the system was always down I couldn’t get through. I finally got through on April 30," Cruz said. "On April 30 I saw on the screen that I wasn’t qualified. That took me another week to find out why I was not qualified. During that time, I put an appeal, I kept on calling, and the phone lines were busy, the system was down."
Cruz says she filed an appeal and after trying for a week to get into contact with someone to check the status of her benefits application she was denied again.
"On Friday, May 8, I finally got a hold of a lady and she said look you didn’t get approved for it. I’m going to give you another program, another system, another application," Cruz said.
From then on Cruz went through what she says felt like a streamlined process.
“Which is PUA, which is pandemic unemployment system. She went through it with me I got approved for $275, $600 a week," Cruz said. "But my concern now is if I’m going to get my retroactive pay from March 22, til now.”
Cruz says when she did finally get into the online system, she was able to request some retroactive pay--but not all-- and she worries it’s not enough.
My concern right now is getting my mortgage paid. Because I have until June 1 to pay March, April, and May, if I don’t pay it I’m going to get a foreclosure or I’m going to be out in the street," Cruz said.
Cruz says it feels like the system is designed to make applicants give up. Michelle Evermore with the National Employment Law Project agrees.
“This was a system actively designed to discourage workers from applying for benefits," Evermore said. "And so workers were made to navigate a confusing navigation process designed to cut them off at every point.”
Evermore says Florida’s statistics back up her statement.
In the first quarter of last year, only 8.3% of unemployed workers in Florida were able to get a benefit. The worst in the United States for that quarter. And an annual rate of around 10% is among the bottom two states. That’s stunningly irresponsible," Evermore said. "Around 49% of workers exhausted benefits before finding employment last year.
Evermore says currently Florida is dead last when it comes to claims processing during the coronavirus pandemic. But she says the system isn’t the only problem. She also points to issues with the state’s rules for who’s eligible.
"Massachusetts and New Mexico modernized their computer system in a consortium with Florida’s and those systems are paying out benefits. The programming is based on a underlying political structure that revolves around denying benefits anytime it is remotely possible," Evermore said. "
That’s been the case for laid-off construction worker Thomas Spellman.
"I’m a first-year apprentice at Local 67, here at Plant City. I applied March 22, I was denied April 27, with no reason given," Spellman said. "When I did finally reach somebody on the phone all they told me was they couldn’t tell me why I was ineligible so they told me to reapply."
He says since then he’s applied twice more and hasn’t heard anything back from the state.
"I do have a baby on the way expecting any day now. So it’s been tough being on one income but right now we’re on no income cause she’s on maternity leave," Spellman said. So we’re waiting for her short term disability to kick in, so that’s going to be about another two weeks.
Spellman says he’s tried calling several times and even emailing Governor DeSantis himself.
I have questions too. Am I going to get retroactive pay from March 22, now that I’ve had to apply three different times? Is that going to affect me? Is that going to affect my pay, my application? It’s very frustrating you can’t contact anybody," Spellman said. "I’ve emailed the governor no response. I’ve sent countless emails with no response, countless phone calls. So it’s been tough the state has failed me.
The AFL-CIO has dropped off around 11,000 petitions at the Capitol building asking the governor to make several changes to the unemployment system and its rules. Some of those changes would clarify that workers taking unpaid leave should be eligible for unemployment and that voluntary separations due to quarantine or unsafe working conditions shouldn’t disqualify a worker from receiving unemployment benefits.