TAMPA — About 20 protesters gathered along Tampa’s West Kennedy Boulevard near the Fox News 13 station on Wednesday to speak out against the state’s unemployment compensation system, which has been under national scrutiny since the spike in layoffs and furloughs due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Some protesters chanted, “Pay me now!” Others stood silent holding signs while an occasional honk in support of the crowd rang in from the street.
The protesters were a mix of families with young children, groups of friends, and local single residents — most separated at least six feet from the next group, but only some with masks.
For Michelle Johnson, 57, it’s been six weeks since she has filled for unemployment after being furloughed from her job. She said she has yet to receive any form of government payment and is growing increasingly concerned about her bills.
"What everybody wants from you is a date that you're going to pay and that's the thing, I can't promise because I get no date from the system,” said Johnson.
Many of the protesters say they have yet to receive payments — either in full or at all — despite being eligible. Some have been completely barred from logging in to the online system due to flaws in the identity verification system.
Among those protesting was Kelly Johnson, 48, a Pinellas County resident who plans on challenging Florida House Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, in the upcoming District 65 election — a race she says may resemble a David-and-Goliath match up. Sprowls is slated to be Florida’s next House Speaker.
After facing her own struggles with the unemployment system earlier this year and witnessing the growing frustration within her community, Johnson decided she is going to run for public office.
“I was about to leave Florida I was so angry,” said Johnson. “And I said, ‘Okay, you can either leave or you can change things.”
Democrats in the U.S. Senate earlier in the week called for an investigation into Florida’s unemployment processing system. However, the request by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who leads the Senate Finance Committee, were criticized by Gov. Ron DeSantis as another example of “partisan politics.” DeSantis, however, has also criticized the state’s handling of unemployment claims, saying the system was designed to fail. His office is investigating the $77.9 million contract to launch the online application system.
Protesters in Tampa say they’re frustrated and disappointed in Florida state leadership, particularly in what appears to be a lack of initiative surrounding fixing the glitches in the unemployment payment system.
"[Desantis] is not really getting to the bottom of it,” said Shawn Shannon, 43, who attended the protest with his wife and daughter. “If he was listening, we wouldn’t be out here protesting. We need results. We need action.”
Shannon has been on furlough and locked out of the unemployment system since March. He says he has been calling the Department of Economic Opportunity hundreds of times a day.
“I wake up at 7:30 a.m. I’m at my desk, on my laptop and I’m calling from sunup to sundown,” said Shannon. “When I do get through, they don’t even know what to do. They should have the authority to unlock the system.”
Shannon, like many of the other people in attendance, are out protesting because they feel limited in their options to be heard and to fix the system in order to support their families.
The rally in Tampa was a part of a larger coordinated effort across multiple cities statewide, including Orlando and Tallahassee.