Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

Romano: Computer problems no small thing for those who need unemployment

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The truck is old, and the transmission is spotty.

Still, it was Crystal Hewitt's only hope as she traveled back and forth to the library in Spring Hill to apply for her unemployment benefits on a public computer.

She did this all day Tuesday as Florida unveiled a new online claims system. And like thousands of others across the state, she was confronted with a series of error messages, missing links and unworkable PIN codes.

For those with Internet access at home, it was frustrating enough. Considering Crystal had to abide by the library's 45-minute time limit on computers, it was a nightmare.

So in between she called the state's hotline only to be told by an automated voice that no one was available and she might want to call back later.

Tuesday came and went, and Wednesday was looking like a dreary repeat. And then the ante was upped when her truck broke down upon leaving the library.

"I have to pay my rent, I have to feed my kids, I have to have gas in my truck so I can look for a job," said Hewitt, 36, a mother of two who lost her job as a payroll technician. "Without that money, I'm in limbo. Our lives are in their hands."

That a new online claims system would have glitches is hardly a surprise. There were similar problems when the Affordable Care Act's marketplace debuted this month.

The difference is the urgency of the unemployment program. A delay of even a day or two can be critical for people with bills coming due.

The state supposedly increased phone lines to handle problems, but the Department of Economic Opportunity's Facebook page was barraged with complaints from people who called for hours without success.

Making matters worse is the fear that deadlines for claims are being missed and benefits could be lost forever. The state can say that won't happen, but Florida does not have the best track record when it comes to providing unemployment insurance.

A year ago, Florida was ranked last in the nation in the percentage of eligible workers getting the benefits they were entitled to receive. And the Department of Labor criticized officials for creating hurdles that made it more difficult to receive benefits.

"I appreciate that a new system just getting off the ground is going have some rough patches," said Valory Greenfield, an attorney with Florida Legal Services. "But the state has to appreciate that this could create a financial catastrophe for some people."

The issue is not whether the state needed to spend $63 million for a new system. And it is not whether the glitches are systemic or simply temporary. The issue is why the state did not have a better backup plan.

If the system could not be thoroughly tested, there should have been another way for claims to be processed. It could have been through the old website, through local offices, or with a phone system that actually worked.

Automated recordings and error messages are not acceptable options in this case.

Crystal Hewitt never did get through online, but she finally reached a representative by phone late Wednesday afternoon. He told her he spotted the problem with her account, and was sending an email to the support department to have it fixed.

So is her money available now? No, not yet.

She needs to go back to the library to see if the system will actually allow her to apply.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this column.

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