Nearly six weeks after President Barack Obama extended unemployment benefits in hard-hit states like Florida, Janet Husted of St. Petersburg is still waiting for her first check.
Like thousands of Floridians, Husted can blame the waiting game on slow technology and bad timing.
Floridians who happened to exhaust their unemployment benefits after Nov. 1 were automatically enrolled to receive the new round of extended benefits, so their weekly checks kept flowing. Those whose benefits had expired before November, however, had to reapply with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.
Online applications for extended benefits — up to an additional 20 weeks — in Florida became available just last week, the same time the state began notifying some people by mail that they may be eligible. Applicants were told processing could take a couple of weeks.
Husted, 70, was laid off from a customer service job in AAA's insurance operation in August 2008. She received her last weekly unemployment check for $261 three months ago.
Earlier this month, two different staffers at the Agency for Workforce Innovation told Husted she qualifies for extended benefits. But she was given conflicting information about just when that money will come. Maybe within two weeks, maybe not.
"I had one call one day and one the next, and they had a totally different story," Husted said. "The people working in Tallahassee don't seem to know one day to the next what's happening."
She doubts her first check will come before the holidays.
The Agency for Workforce Innovation, the state's agency for unemployment benefits, said it has "diligently worked" to complete "significant reprogramming" of its computer system to implement the new program. It created a special Web page to allow Floridians to see if they're eligible for the next tier of benefits.
When the latest extension was passed in early November, the government estimated about 250,000 Floridians who were exhausting benefits sometime in 2009 could be eligible. Of those, about two-thirds were expected to be automatically re-enrolled, state officials said.
AWI spokeswoman Victoria Heller said some of the newly filed extension applications are being processed immediately, but others require additional information or verification. Their claims will likely be processed and payments made within two weeks of filing, she said.
The delay is both baffling and frustrating to Richard Morsani, an unemployed electrician from Spring Hill.
First it took two months of debate in Washington before an extension was approved. Now, Morsani said, there appears to be a lack of urgency in getting money to those who need it most to pay their bills.
Morsani said he has been trying since Nov. 8 to find out if he qualifies for an extension, but he has had trouble navigating AWI's Web site. He eventually reached an AWI representative by phone but was frustrated that she wouldn't share any information about his status on the phone even as she was looking at his file.
Instead, she told him to go back online.
"She wouldn't give me any information on the screen," he said. "I was trying to be nice, but I was getting very angry. … I said, 'My Christmas is gone. I won't get any money for Christmas.' "
With an unemployment rate of 11.2 percent, Florida has already earned its spot among the cluster of high-unemployment states.
The National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers that compiles unemployment benefits information, has hammered Florida for doling out an average weekly unemployment benefit of just $239, among the lowest in the country.
Now comes the added issue of delayed benefits.
"The reality, given the crumbling infrastructure of the state programs, is that it's hard to get the benefits out the door," said Maurice Emsellem, who tracks unemployment issues for the law project.
He noted that the original goal of the federal legislation was to help a surge of people who were running out of benefits in September and October. Because of the reapplication process, though, that group got pushed back as a priority.
Unlike Florida, Emsellem said, some states expedited their programs to push checks into the hands of the jobless first and verify their eligibility for renewal second.
In New York, for instance, about 40,000 people who had run out of benefits as far back as Oct. 4 were certified on Nov. 15 to receive extended benefits. That kept them in the New York system receiving checks while the process of checking into their eligibility continued.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.