TALLAHASSEE — For some Floridians, losing a job is just the beginning of their frustration.
The state agency that handles claims for unemployment benefits can't keep pace with the record demand for help, even after hiring 500 more workers to manage 1,000 phone lines at three locations on weekdays, at nights and on weekends.
As the jobless rate in Florida nears 10 percent, the Agency for Workforce Innovation concedes that people trying track down a lost check or resolve other problems get recorded messages, busy signals or cut off entirely. The lucky ones may endure waits of more than 10 minutes.
"They can't get anyone on the line to deal with people," said Kenneth Ruff, 46, of Dunedin, an unemployed engineering consultant, who said it took him a month to find out he missed a deadline to file for benefits by three weeks. He said Gov. Charlie Crist and lawmakers need to create a "no worker left behind" program.
AWI says it has no way of knowing how many callers don't get through to a live agent.
The state says the half-million people in Florida who draw $300 weekly unemployment checks for up to 59 weeks must call back every two weeks to reaffirm their jobless status, so the priority has to be taking care of them first.
"Once you get into the system, you stay in the system," said Bob Corder, the unemployment compensation program supervisor. "If we allowed everyone who had a question to go into a (waiting) queue, those 1,012 phone lines would be full from morning till night and no one would get their benefits. We do not like sending out busy signals, of course."
On his computer in a cubicle near the state Capitol, Corder monitors call waiting times at sites in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tallahassee. "This is very good," he said, checking his screen on a Monday morning. "If we could keep this at six minutes, I think we'd take it."
AWI encourages people to apply for benefits online at floridajobs.org. The agency says it handled 1.3 million jobless claims in 2008, twice as many as in 2007, and will soon spend up to $6.25 million in federal money for a private call center company to manage overflow calls of up to 10,000 a day.
The state will require the center to be based in Florida and will pay based on the calls handled. Volumes fluctuate each month.
"We're throwing every resource we can at this," Corder said. "With the economy the way it is and with two federal extensions (of benefits), our customers don't ever leave us. They can't find jobs."
Unable to get through by phone, many callers turn to the governor's office or legislators for help.
"We get calls all the time. They're just overwhelmed," said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat. "There are too many who need help and too few resources."
At the same time, the pool of money to pay unemployment compensation is shrinking rapidly. It was at $619 million last week, down from $680 million the week before.
Some critics say the agency needs still more resources to address the urgency of the worst unemployment crisis in Florida since the mid 1970s.
"I don't know why (waiting) 10 minutes is okay. It shouldn't be," said attorney Valory Greenfield of Florida Legal Services in Miami. "If that's what the average is, it's often longer."
Greenfield said her assistant calls AWI twice a day and the calls are disconnected after a third recorded message says, "An agent is not available at this time. … Call back later." The state says that happens only when the caller presses zero, the option for general questions. The number is toll-free 1-800-204-2418.
The e-mail in box of case agent Earl Simmons showed a long list of referrals from state legislators. One of the toughest parts of his job, Simmons said, is having to call people who have been "flagged" as ineligible for benefits.
Case agent Ericka Jones, 22, helped a man retrieve a lost check for $275. He had moved but the state didn't have his new address, and unemployment checks are not forwarded by the Postal Service.
Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.