Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Business

State's broken unemployment claims system has real human costs

BROOKSVILLE — Tina Cash had already been up for two hours applying for jobs online when she heard her 20-month-old daughter crying in her crib.

She plodded in and tried to smile at the tousled-haired toddler. "Hi, Pumpkin," she said, giving the girl a kiss and lifting her out of the crib. "I love you."

Cash, 34, was six months pregnant, single, unemployed. She had 86 cents in her polka-dot wallet and had been evicted from her two-bedroom apartment. She had sold her couch, her bedroom set, her baby's bouncer and infant car seat and all her gold jewelry to live. She hadn't received an unemployment payment — nearly $2,000 in all — since late October.

Cash is one of thousands of out-of-work Floridians who have gone weeks and months without receiving state unemployment benefits. The problems stem from the state's new CONNECT website, which debuted Oct. 15. While state officials wrangle with Deloitte, the contractor, over repairs to the $63 million system, Cash and others struggle to keep the lights on and a roof over their heads.

On Monday, Cash enlisted a girlfriend to drive her almost half an hour to a career counseling office in Spring Hill. A lady there named Edna had promised to help. Her sister had agreed to take Cash's daughter, Kelsey, for the day but she hadn't shown up.

Tears streamed down Cash's face and she held her daughter close. "I guess you're coming with me, baby," she said softly. "I can't count on anybody."

• • •

Kelsey stayed with Cash's friend, Julie Rodriguez, in the car while Cash went into Career Central, an agency that is part of the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board Inc.

Cash had long, wavy blond hair and brown eyes and her pregnant belly peeked noticeably through her zebra print blouse.

"Are you Edna?" Cash asked a dark-haired, serious woman in a corner office.

The woman nodded and Cash explained some of her situation. She'd lost her job as an administrative assistant at a sausage-manufacturing plant in June and gotten pregnant. She waited until October to apply for unemployment benefits (under the old system) and received two payments for $217 and then nothing. The computer was telling her she had to mail in proof of identity. She'd mailed it twice, faxed it once. Still, no payments.

"Yeah, sometimes things get lost," the counselor said, before they closed the door.

Cash said the counselor got on a speaker phone with someone at the Department of Economic Opportunity who told her she should check her account by 4 p.m. when her back payments would likely be processed.

Cash burst into tears of relief and the counselor went to make copies of her documents.

"It's been a long time coming," she said. "Two months of craziness."

Cash said she has inquired about hundreds of jobs. That morning alone, she'd applied to be an office assistant for a home health care agency, a receptionist at a real estate office, a front desk coordinator at a construction firm and a unit clerk at a hospital. But no one called back.

As Cash left, the counselor told her to call if she had any further problems. Cash would remain, she told her, a high priority.

• • •

Cash's next stop was a Winn-Dixie, where she approached the Western Union desk. Her former voice teacher, who lived in Texas, had wired her $150 to help out.

Cash's support system was limited. She'd never known her father and was estranged from her mother, who is a registered sex offender. She said she'd been raped by family members as a young child. She had two older children who lived with her aunt. She seemed like a conscientious person who had lived a troubled life and hadn't always made the best decisions, including a driving under the influence conviction in 2011. But she seemed determined to get through this.

Facing eviction because she'd gotten one month behind on her $500 rent, she'd found a one-bedroom place a few miles away for $300 a month. But part of the deal was she had to clean out the mess left behind by the former tenants. Rodriguez told her she'd watch Kelsey, and dropped Cash off at the new place. She climbed a ladder and began wiping the windows with glass cleaner.

Moments later, she got a call.

"As soon as I get this money, I'll send it to you," Cash said.

Moments later, the power was cut off. The power company wanted $116 she owed for December at her old place before it would transfer the account. Cash called Kelsey's paternal grandmother, who gave her her credit card number. "As soon as my money is released, I'll send you the money for the electric," Cash told her.

She hung up. Her phone was dying. "I'm so stressed out right now," she said, taking a drag from a cigarette (she'd quit but she said the stress was too much). "I'm going to owe so many people that I won't have any left but that's okay."

At 4 p.m., she logged on to the state website. "They told me if it doesn't happen by 4," she said, "it's a glitch in the system."

She sighed heavily. None of her claims had been processed.

• • •

Since Dec. 20, the state Department of Economic Opportunity has fined the consultant that upgraded the decades old unemployment system $15,000 a day until it is fixed.

Jessica Sims, a spokesperson for the agency, didn't know how many people had struggled to get paid by the system. "It's not working to give out consistent and reliable data," she said.

The state has processed more than 1.1 million claims for more than $331 million since October, she said, and more people are getting paid by the day.

"We want the people to know that we're making sure we have a fully functioning system," she said, "and that every person has their claim processed."

• • •

On Tuesday, the day after Cash went to Career Central, the state processed one of Cash's claims for $217. The previous nine claims were still on hold. Cash called the counselor twice but didn't hear back.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

   
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