Sunday, September 23, 2018
Business

Getting an unemployment check in Florida is frustrating ordeal for many

TALLAHASSEE — When 65-year-old Raymond Togyer isn't polishing his resume or cold calling potential employers, he's spending hours trying, unsuccessfully, to navigate Florida's labyrinthine unemployment compensation system.

Togyer — who was laid off for the first time in his adult life from a high-paying civil engineering job in June — has spent the last seven weeks sending and resending letters, staying on hold for hours and checking state websites, all to no avail.

He is one of hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Floridians flummoxed by what has become the most tightfisted unemployment compensation system in the nation.

"They told me that I was eligible and that I was going to be getting $275 a week," said Togyer, of Fort Lauderdale. "That was seven weeks ago. To this day I have not received anything. I'm draining my savings to pay my bills."

Critics say Gov. Rick Scott and Florida's Legislature are behind a multipronged effort to restrict payments to eligible Floridians. A required 45-question "skills review" and an online-only application system have combined to restrict thousands of applicants from receiving aid. The U.S. Labor Department is investigating the complaints. A spokesman told the Times/Herald that Florida is cooperating with the inquiry, but would not comment further.

Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment, but in the past he has touted the required 45-question "skills review" as a common-sense reform intended to create a more skilled workforce.

Whatever the intention, the impact is clear: Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Floridians have been cut off from a safety net system for those who find themselves suddenly without income.

Florida's "recipiency rate" — the proportion of unemployed people who actually receive jobless benefits— is 16 percent, the country's lowest. Only one in three applicants for unemployment compensation in Florida receives any money, ranking the state dead last among the 50 states.

"The cumulative impact of these changes is that the process of filing an initial claim for benefits is much more difficult for the average Floridian," the National Employment Law Project wrote in a recent complaint to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The unemployment compensation system is designed as a form of insurance that businesses pay into to help fund temporary assistance for employees who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. In Florida, the average weekly check is about $230. Currently, about 800,000 are unemployed.

Scott and the Legislature overhauled Florida's system in 2011, adding a long list of requirements and making all applicants apply online. The law required applicants to take a 45-question skills assessment and contact five employers every week and reduced the maximum number of weeks of assistance from 26 to 23.

Scott pushed more changes this year, rebranding the program as Reemployment Assistance and cutting the business taxes that fund the program by $800 million over three years.

The program is mired in debt, and the transition has been anything but smooth. Frustrated applicants complain of misinformation on the state's website and customer service phone lines that can be tied up for days on end.

A Times/Herald reporter tried several times over the course of a week to reach the state's customer service department for jobless claims. Several times an automated message said, "We are currently experiencing high call volumes. An agent is not available at this time," and then the line went dead.

On one occasion, the recorded voice said: "There are currently 399 calls in front of you."

James Miller, a spokesperson for the Department of Economic Opportunity, said tied-up phone lines are not a problem, and the average hold time is about seven or eight minutes.

Roberta May, 50, of Palm Harbor, has been trying for two months to add herself to the state's unemployment compensation rolls. After her customer service job in Oldsmar was shipped to the Philippines in June, she immediately applied for jobless benefits.

She said her file got passed along to an adjudicator who would not return her phone calls.

After spending hours on hold and sending several unanswered emails to find out about the application, May learned Tuesday that her file had been passed on to another adjudicator who was starting over from scratch.

"They've lost all the information they had a month ago," she said.

Togyer, who recently began collecting Social Security benefits, said he has spent nearly two months trying to get someone to tell him what is going on with his application for assistance.

He applied online shortly after being laid off from his position with Shah, Drotos & Associates, a Pompano Beach engineering consultancy. He was told he was eligible for about $275 per week, and waited patiently for his first check. After three weeks, there was no check and he tried to call to find out about the delay. It took him several days to reach an agent, who then informed him that he was required to fill out an assessment to measure his skills.

The processing delays and understaffed phone lines come at a time when Florida's unemployment insurance program is deeply in the red. Because the demand for benefits has outpaced the revenue coming in from business taxes, Florida has had to borrow more than $2.7 billion from the federal government. That debt load increased this year when the Legislature approved $800 million in tax cuts on the business taxes that fund the program.

Meanwhile, Scott is touting the drop in the number of people receiving unemployment benefits as evidence that Florida's economy is improving.

Federal data show, however, that more than 250,000 Floridians have been kicked out of the program during Scott's tenure because their benefits ran out. And hundreds of thousands of additional applicants have been denied access to benefits because they did not meet strict new requirements that Scott signed into law.

Still, Scott has pivoted to highlighting the shrinking unemployment compensation rolls in the wake of less rosy jobs numbers.

"I'm pretty consistent in what I talk about every day," Scott said this month. "I want to make sure people can get a job in Florida."

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