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As Florida’s jobless website crashed, state lawmakers scrambled to help

Contacts lawmakers made with so many jobless Floridians is likely the greatest constituent outreach effort in the Legislature’s history, notable for a state whose lawmakers and staff are used to natural disasters.

TALLAHASSEE — In the first four months of Florida’s pandemic-triggered unemployment crisis, state lawmakers and their staff referred at least 60,000 jobless Floridians to the state’s unemployment agency for help filing for and receiving state benefits, department data shows.

As millions of desperate out-of-work Floridians looked for a way to receive benefits through the state’s broken website, their desperation prompted many to turn to their state local lawmakers’ offices, typically staffed by just three or four people, including the lawmaker.

All 159 state lawmakers and their staffs responded and sent names, detailed unemployment information and contact information to the state’s the Department of Economic Opportunity, according to department data from March to June obtained by the Times/Herald through a public records request.

The numbers come from a database the department created for state lawmakers and their staff to refer their constituents’ names. It is likely a drastic undercount. It does not include the other ways lawmakers contacted the department, such as forwarding constituents’ emails or sending their own spreadsheets of names.

The data shows the office of state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, for example, referred more than 1,500 constituents to the department. On Aug. 28 alone, he sent the department a detailed spreadsheet of nearly 5,000 Floridians from across the state who still needed help receiving benefits. He estimates he and his office have referred 20,000 people to the agency for help.

Their contacts with so many jobless Floridians is likely the greatest constituent outreach effort in the Legislature’s history, notable for a state whose lawmakers and staff are used to fielding thousands of calls for help following natural disasters.

“There’s nothing that even compares,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has been in the Legislature since 2010. “It was just overwhelming.”

Interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers and aides show that their offices sometimes mirrored the desperation felt by millions of out-of-work Floridians. State lawmakers enlisted volunteers to take calls, spent their own money to hire help or place desperate Floridians in hotels, and created detailed spreadsheets of tens of thousands of desperate Floridians that they frequently followed up with.

“It’s almost like we were a legislative team and a social work team,” said Lauren Cooper, district secretary for state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, whose office referred more than 16,000 of the 60,000 people to the state, by far the most in the database.

The problem was caused by a combination of the pandemic, which devastated Florida’s tourism-driven economy in Mid-March, and the state’s shoddy unemployment system, which was immediately overwhelmed by the number of people who lost work.

More than a month into the crisis, just 40,193 out of more than 1.5 million Floridians were paid. With the unemployment agency unable to respond to the crush of phone calls or emails, out-of-work Floridians turned to anyone who might be able to help — the news media, upstart Facebook groups and state lawmakers from both parties.

State lawmakers and their staff would have typically been off in late March this year, following the end of the Legislature’s frantic 60-day annual session and the start of campaign season. Instead, those staff members, whose state government salaries usually hover around $40,000, worked around the clock fielding phone calls from constituents. Florida’s senators and representatives are part-time and paid $29,697 per year, and they usually have just two or three people on staff for scheduling and constituent issues.

In the early days of the pandemic, Eskamani turned her political operation into a constituent outreach effort. Instead of calling for donations or knocking on doors, she asked dozens of volunteers and a handful of interns to call constituents to see what they needed, she said.

Help filing and receiving unemployment benefits emerged as the most immediate need, and the desperation grew by the week.

Alex Weeden, who was a criminal defense attorney before becoming Eskamani’s legislative assistant, said he witnessed Floridians situations deteriorate by the week. He’d receive updates from Floridians saying they were losing their pets or their cell phone numbers as their finances dwindled.

Lawmakers and staff also fielded calls from Floridians so desperate they referred them to mental health organizations, food banks and police.

“We had to contact the sheriff’s office to perform welfare checks,” said Melissa Meshil, Brandes’ legislative assistant.

There was little lawmakers could do to help fulfill people’s claims beyond pestering the Department of Economic Opportunity, which is overseen by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Lawmakers would follow up with the department multiple times as the same constituents failed to get help.

And lawmakers typically had no better information from the department than the public and press, not notified when the department made major decisions, like when it failed to announce that hundreds of thousands of applicants needed to reapply.

The department is soon to be overseen by state Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, who said Thursday that improving the department’s communications with lawmakers was one of his top priorities.

“I’ve seen the pain and the difficulties,” Eagle said. “I think a lot of it’s communication.”

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who is also the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said he doubted that anyone would give lawmakers credit for their response, since it’s their job.

“The system never should have been that hard to deal with in the first place,” he said.

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