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How is Florida’s broken unemployment system hurting people? Let us count the ways

Some laid-off workers have tried hundreds of times to apply for benefits. They wonder whether the system was designed to fail.

Florida’s unemployment system remains in disarray. Tens of thousands of laid-off people can’t sign up, losing out on as much as $875 a week in state and federal benefits. They get bounced off the website. Their calls to the helpline go unanswered. Frustration grows with every failed attempt.

The state’s negligence leaves them on a financial tightrope. Will they have enough money for groceries? Which bills can they ignore? Will their landlord give them another break on rent?

“The state has deserted us,” one man said. “How did it mess this up so badly?”

Dozens of people reached out to the Tampa Bay Times with their stories. Many are looking for answers.

• • •

Andrea Trout. [Andrea Trout]

Andrea Trout lost her job, but not her spirit. She’s upbeat, like a motivational speaker — have a plan, get it done, move forward.

The 47-year-old single mom lives in Brandon with her two middle-schoolers. She knows they are watching how she handles getting furloughed from her job as assistant general manager at the Harbour Island Athletic Club. She wants them to know things will be okay.

She is thankful that her mortgage company agreed to push off payments for three months. She has some money set aside, but losing her job has taught her that she should save even more.

“We don't live very extravagantly,” she said. “So it's pretty easy for us to eat beans and rice and have a good time.”

A personal identification number has stymied her from accessing the state’s unemployment benefits system, a common complaint. She received the PIN when she signed up for benefits seven years ago. The system won’t accept the number, and every time she calls the helpline to reset the PIN, she gets a busy signal or a message saying no one is available to take the call.

Years ago, she worked for the Red Cross and understands that even the best disaster management plan can’t anticipate every problem.

“But I hope the people with the power to fix the system are watching and learning,” she said. “This won’t be our last pandemic, after all.”

• • •

J. Brown. [J. Brown]

J. Brown has called the helpline so many times that he has the recorded voice of the woman seared in his brain.

Thank you for calling the Florida re-employment assistance authentication line.

Por español, oprima el dos.

Pou Creole, peze twa.

(Pause)

All of our phone lines are busy, and we are unable to offer a callback option at this time.

The Haines City man has been trying to sign his wife up for benefits since she lost her job at an electric scooter company on March 13. The system cannot verify her name, likely because she changed it when they married 15 years ago. He has sent in her Social Security number and driver’s license.

“They’ve got everything they need, but the last step is to get through on the phone,” said Brown, 46. “It feels like some sort of sick nightmare.”

He wonders: Was the system purposefully designed to keep people from signing up?

Related: We answer your questions about unemployment benefits.

• • •

Kathy Coleman. [Kathy Coleman]

Kathy Coleman lost her server job at the White Lion Cafe in Homestead three weeks ago. Every day, she tries to sign up for unemployment benefits, starting early and going into the evening. She has tried on a laptop and a desktop. She has called the helpline more than 200 times. She has emailed and even wrote a letter to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

Nothing.

Coleman, 66, recently beat ocular melanoma, a cancer that develops in eye cells. But the 4½-year battle left her with hard-to-pay credit card debt. She’s eligible for the one-time $1,200 federal stimulus check, and her modest tax return should arrive soon. But she worries about what will happen if she can’t sign up for weekly benefits.

Kathy Coleman's bills are piling up. [Kathy Coleman]

She has stopped paying bills, leaving them in a tidy pile on the kitchen counter. Her landlord gave her a break on the April rent. She feels fortunate not to have a car payment.

Coleman worked as a mortgage underwriter in 2008, when the Great Recession decimated the housing and lending industries. She lost her job and her home.

“All I can think is, here we go again,” she said.

• • •

Stacy Johnson worries about where she will live in a couple of weeks. She was about to sign a new lease when the crisis struck, drastically cutting her hours as a line cook at a Mount Dora hotel. She only worked two shifts last week. She can stay at the mostly empty hotel for a while, but eventually, she needs to find her own place.

The 42-year-old knows her reduced hours make her eligible for weekly payments, but the system won’t let her sign up. She doesn’t want to miss out on federal benefits, which currently have a July 31 cutoff.

“Why do they make this so hard?” she asked.

• • •

Lloyd and Marilyn Rosen. [Courtesy of Lloyd Rosen]

Lloyd Rosen, 73, and his wife stopped counting after making 102 calls to the helpline, none of which were answered. The laid-off fruit and vegetable broker has tried getting through online at all times of the day and night. Three weeks later, he still hasn’t been able to apply.

The worst part, he said, is wondering if anyone will ever answer the phone or if the website will finally work. He’d rather wait in line for a whole day at an office to sign up for benefits. At least then he would know how long it would take. Instead, he feels deserted and let down.

His big worry is the benefits won’t be retroactive. He doesn’t like the idea of the weekly payments he has already missed getting added on three months from now.

“At my age, you don’t even buy green bananas anymore,” he joked from his home in Aventura.

Rosen was laid off from Mac Edwards Produce where he worked for six years. The company supplies fruits and vegetables to the Broward County school district. No school means no kids to feed, which means no job for Rosen.

The Great Recession ripped apart the Rosens’ finances. It’s taken years to put them back together.

“I’m really in a corner. Our savings are not that spectacular,” he said. “At 73, try finding a job that pays you something.”

• • •

Jeff Clark got as far as setting up security questions and his personal identification number. But the benefits system wouldn’t recognize his Social Security number and kept circling him back to the login page. He called CareerSource Pinellas, the local jobs center. An employee told him the system hadn’t let her file a single claim in the past week.

“I just about fell off my chair,” he said.

Clark, 62, retired to Safety Harbor from New York in 2016, but a home improvement company in Largo found his resume online and hired him to design kitchens, which he loves. His last day was March 17. He has spent some of his spare time reading up on the state’s online benefits system, called CONNECT. He found out that the $77 million price tag was $14 million over budget and that auditors had repeatedly detailed numerous problems with the system.

“People say New York and Rhode Island and Massachusetts are corrupt,” he said. "I think Florida gives them a run for their money.”

• • •

It’s 3:30 a.m. on Thursday. Shaina Kelley would rather be sleeping, but she’s determined to fill out the benefit forms on the state’s website. She has tried for two weeks to crack the baffling system, after losing her server job at the Getaway on Gandy Boulevard.

Shaina Kelley, one of thousands of Floridians who had a hard time applying for unemployment benefits. [Courtesy of Shaina Kelley]

Five hours earlier, the system let the 29-year-old in but now it kept sending her back to pages she had already completed. She answered the questions again and again — 20 times, by her estimate.

What is the reason for your job separation? Did you finish high school? Are you receiving severance? Are you a U.S. citizen? Are you a disabled veteran?

Finally, she hit submit.

The system took her back to the first page.

“You’ve got to be kidding me right now,” she said to no one.

She steeled herself to do it all again. But when she logged back in, the site revealed her claim identification number. It worked.

She’s among the lucky.

• • •

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