Florida let its unemployment benefits system crumble. Now we all pay the price.

Graham Brink | For years, state leaders failed to heed warnings that the system to help laid-off workers was in trouble.
Librarian Sharon Howes, right, hands a unemployment application to a driver at the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library Monday, April 13, 2020 in Tampa. Floridians have wrestled with the state's broken unemployment benefits system for weeks.
Librarian Sharon Howes, right, hands a unemployment application to a driver at the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library Monday, April 13, 2020 in Tampa. Floridians have wrestled with the state's broken unemployment benefits system for weeks. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published April 23, 2020|Updated April 27, 2020

The offspring of a train wreck and a dumpster fire would resemble Florida’s unemployment benefits program.

The state’s leaders so undermined the system over the past decade that when the money needed to flow, it dripped like a broken faucet. The incompetence has made the coronavirus crisis worse, hurting countless out-of-work Floridians and further destabilizing the economy when it most needed financial support.

Audit after audit exposed the fragility of the online application system, which faltered even when unemployment was low. Our leaders ignored the warnings. Now, they have the gall to say there was nothing they could have done to prevent the website from collapsing. They said the system was overwhelmed and could not possibly have kept up with demand.

No one expected a seamless process with such a staggering number of people applying for benefits. But the Tallahassee brain trust disregarded the system for years. The state set itself up for failure and that’s exactly what happened. Negligence combined with arrogance has a way of doing that.

Instead of leadership, Floridians got feeble apologies. For weeks, the Department of Economic Development couldn’t even tell Gov. Ron DeSantis how many applications had been processed or how many people had received benefits, basic information that some states released daily.

Last week, DeSantis replaced the man in charge of the unemployment program. At the time, the governor said the application system was improving and more people were able to sign up. But he added, “it’s not nearly enough.”

Not. Even. Close.

From March 15 through Monday, only 40,193 Floridians had received benefits, out of nearly 1.5 million claims for assistance. The state had released less than $60 million. By contrast, California paid more than $1 billion over the same period.

Seven out of every 8 Floridians who successfully filed a claim were waiting to have them processed, the worst rate in the country, according to a recent look at U.S. Department of Labor data. Those figures don’t include the thousands of people thwarted by the broken system who could not submit a claim.

Another unflattering comparison: The federal government came up with a way to disburse $350 billion to small businesses in a matter of days. Florida spent more than a month fumbling around as it tried to get money into the hands of people desperate for help — the laid-off delivery driver down to $7.35 in his checking account; the server deciding between paying rent or the electric bill; the single mom who tried to apply more than 200 times but kept getting kicked off the website. Thankfully, Florida’s pace has picked up in recent days, in part due to spending $110 million to back up the system.

Related: Answers to your questions about unemployment benefits.

Our political leaders didn’t need to dig under the sofa cushions to find enough money to cover the jobless benefits. The state has more than $4 billion set aside in an unemployment trust fund, a “record amount” those same leaders boasted before the crisis.

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A cynic might wonder whether the state would have moved this slow to deliver corporate welfare. Not long ago, businesses willing to relocate to Florida could get millions of dollars in state incentives before creating a single job. The state has since come to its senses and insists that the jobs come first.

Several Tampa Bay Times readers have asked whether making it nearly impossible to get benefits was the plan all along. They point to how Florida seems to prefer the “jobs, not handouts” approach, even when there aren’t nearly enough jobs to go around. The state also offers one of the stingiest payouts: a maximum of $275 a week for up to 12 weeks, with additional weeks if the state’s unemployment rate rises above 5 percent.

Bill Conner, 65, called the benefits helpline 100 times in an hour on Thursday morning — and has the phone log to prove it. He never got past the automated voice telling him his call was being canceled due to high volume.

“Such is the frustration of countless thousands of unemployed Floridians,” said Conner, who lost his job in January.

People are hurting and the unemployment system is adding to their anxieties. With a little foresight and stronger leadership, the debacle was avoidable. This has not been the state’s finest hour.

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