Quitting her job under stress was just the start of 28-year-old Lori Szollosi's troubles. Her anxiety soared when she tried to collect unemployment insurance from the state — or even contact someone who could help.
A dozen busy signals or "no agent is available'' messages in five months from the state unemployment agency. Two months to find out she had been denied benefits after receiving conflicting status letters in the mail. An apology from a supervisor in December after an adjudicator failed to contact her, standard procedure before denying a claim.
"The delays were maddening," said Szollosi, a St. Petersburg resident who detailed her misadventures in a four-page "Unemployment Chronology'' and lost her appeal last month. "Here we give billions of dollars to these banks who aren't turning around and helping people. … And I had to go through all this just to try to get $2,000.''
Such frustration is in ample supply. With Florida's unemployment rate climbing from 4.4 percent to 7.3 percent over the past year, the state organization charged with doling out unemployment benefits, the optimistically titled Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, is in crisis:
• Applications pouring in at rates two to three times higher than a year ago have swamped phone lines. For anyone who evaded busy signals, the peak average wait time exceeded an hour recently, compared to less than 10 minutes a year ago.
• Some unemployed workers with disputed claims have waited up to five months for a hearing. Florida, like many states, is falling far below the national guidelines of resolving 80 percent of disputed claim filings within 21 days.
• The state's fund that pays unemployment benefits is draining at an alarming rate. Florida Department of Revenue staffers and legislators have discussed the possibility of seeking an emergency tax rate hike for employers who pay into the fund.
AWI, wholly funded by the federal government, has hired more than 300 additional workers, added 345 phone lines, extended hours and sought more federal funding, including $2-million toward upgrading its 30-year-old mainframe computer. But it acknowledges shortfalls with both manpower and experience.
"It's all hands on deck right now,'' says AWI's external affairs director, Victoria Heller. "Even those whose job before was not processing claims (are helping). We're utilizing everyone possible to help with the workload.''
The National Association of State Workforce Agencies blames current problems across the country on chronic underfunding.
Ingrid Evans, the organization's unemployment insurance director, said underfunding has reached a "critical level." For fiscal 2009, her group estimated that states needed $546-million more than they received from the federal government to upgrade computer systems, expand call centers, hire more people and maintain their unemployment insurance infrastructure.
To be sure, Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation has received some kudos.
As of October, it was still comfortably above federal guidelines that it start issuing checks to 87 percent of applicants within three weeks of filing. The state's aging computer system for processing claims hasn't been crashing as in other states. And while depleted by half in the past year, the $1.3-billion balance in the unemployment fund buys Florida more time than a dozen other states that are in imminent danger of running out of money.
Critics, however, contend that the state is stingy with benefits, which is the only reason the fund remains flush with money.
Florida's maximum weekly unemployment benefit of $239 (as of the middle of 2008) ranked sixth-lowest in the country, with benefits replacing just 32 percent of lost wages on average. And fewer of Florida's jobless workers (32 percent) qualify for benefits compared to the national average (37 percent).
"Our view of Florida is that it's a place that's ripe for reform," said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers that tracks unemployment benefits data. "It doesn't pay a greater percentage of workers benefits, and the benefits themselves aren't that great.''
On speed dial
One recent Friday afternoon, anxious job hunters occupied almost every computer at the WorkNet Pinellas One-Stop center in downtown St. Petersburg. They searched job listings, brushed up resumes or tried to navigate the unemployment compensation bureaucracy.
Mark Plenty, 52, said he has come to the center nearly every day since losing his telemarketing job on Oct. 29. On Nov. 2, he applied for unemployment benefits. He was told that his claim was being investigated on Dec. 17 and has heard nothing since.
Plenty, who moved two years ago from Arizona, said he has not been able to reach a person on the phone to discuss his claim's status. Instead, he comes to the center and e-mails them everyday.
"I've got to get their attention one way or another," he said. "I'm getting ready to be evicted. I'm two months behind in my rent.''
Last week, he was hired for another telemarketing job.
Lynette Benson, 51, a medical anthropologist, lost her Pinellas County Health Department job in July and applied for benefits by phone.
"I just did the redial thing. You just hang up, redial. Hang up, redial," she said.
She got through eventually, but now has problems connecting by phone to claim her weekly benefits. "You call and there's a busy signal,'' she said. "I've actually got unemployment on my speed dial.''
Karen P. Kirkpatrick, 49, who recently ended her job search by getting a 20-hour-per-week job at WorkNet helping others like herself, has similar complaints.
"You're trying not to be homeless and keep your lights on and this just makes it even worse. They should find a way to get their system together,'' she said.
For 2008, the unemployment office processed 1.3-million claims, double the total from a year ago. Much of the surge came at year-end, as it processed 43,522 claims the week before Christmas, up 222 percent. For the week ending Jan. 10, the number of claims soared to 60,535, a weekly record and a 232 percent increase from the same time last year.
AWI spokesman Robby Cunningham described the high volume of claims as "kind of an aberration,'' brought on when the federal government twice extended benefits in hard-hit states including Florida.
The extensions required AWI to mail notices to nearly 600,000 people who may qualify for more money, Cunningham said. AWI estimates that roughly 30,000 extension claims are still pending. The workload should return to normal after those additional claims are processed, he said.
In addition to the ramp-up at the end of 2008, AWI is adding an additional 80 workers by mid February.
"There are tens of thousands of people out there in the same boat," Heller said. "We need to make sure we can get to everybody and get them what they need and deserve and are entitled to.''
At WorkNet, which also receives federal funds, the number of people crowding its offices has risen at least 40 percent since this time last year, said Wayne Feuer, director of customer service for WorkNet Pinellas. But those perplexed by the unemployment compensation morass can expect only rudimentary help from WorkNet staff.
"We will set them up (on computers and phones),'' Feuer said. "We just don't have the institutional knowledge, nor are we funded to take people's hand and walk them through the system."
One move that AWI has made to stem mounting frustration: People who can't reach someone on the toll-free number to solve problems can approach an employee at a one-stop center like WorkNet, Cunningham said, "and they will forward the customer's information to us, and we will contact the customer directly.''
"The state is trying to be at least a little proactive,'' Feuer said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.