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Florida unemployment office axes call centers despite thousands who still need help

The only call center still in place to assist the state is Lighthouse Works, an Orlando nonprofit that provides job opportunities for blind and visually impaired adults.
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) [ WILFREDO LEE ]
Published Jun. 11
Updated Jun. 11

Florida’s unemployment office has gotten rid of all of the call centers it brought on in 2020 — a decision that critics said is premature, as thousands of claims continue to pour in and applicants still struggle to get through the state’s antiquated CONNECT website.

The Department of Economic Opportunity recently cut ties with Titan Technologies, a company based in the Panhandle it had contracted with to provide up to 2,000 call reps to help the agency field calls from laid-off workers and process the backlog of claims caused by the pandemic. The original contract was for $80 million, but was later extended and increased to $162 million, according to state documents.

The state previously severed contracts with three other companies that were helping callers, including AECOM based in Los Angeles, United Data Technologies in Miramar and Faneuil in Hampton, Virginia. Those contracts totaled about $23 million and provided at least 1,000 call reps.

When the state shuttered AECOM and United Data Technologies’ call centers last summer, the agency said the companies were fired because of poor performance. But AECOM and UDT said the state told them it was because of lack of funding and had “assured us this is in no way attributed to our performance on this contract.”

At the time, Tiffany Vause, a spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity, said the agency ended contracts with some of its vendors in favor of keeping on other companies “who have provided higher skilled and fully trained representatives” — referring to Faneuil and Titan Technologies.

This week, though, Emilie Oglesby, another agency spokeswoman, said the agency “was not fully satisfied with the work [Titan] was providing.” But again, emails sent to Titan employees and provided to the Sentinel say differently.

“The State of Florida and its citizens needed your help and you delivered,” one email from the company’s human resources team states. “You made a substantial difference in the welfare of your fellow Floridians ... "

Related: How unemployment got lost during Florida's legislative session

The only call center still in place to assist the state is Lighthouse Works, an Orlando nonprofit that provides job opportunities for blind and visually impaired adults.

Oglesby said there are about 1,300 staff members remaining to help answer phone calls.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who has been helping people get unemployment benefits, said her office immediately felt the impact of losing those call centers.

One day last week, she said she received over 70 phone calls from residents unable to reach an agent. She also routinely sends lists of urgent cases to the state for people who have waited months for benefits, some of whom have become homeless or express suicidal thoughts to her.

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“We have been flooded with phone calls from folks who just cannot get through to anyone,” said Eskamani.

The decision to axe the agency’s third-party call centers isn’t surprising, after Gov. Ron DeSantis reinstated the requirement to apply to five jobs a week to stay on unemployment and department executive director Dane Eagle announced that federal benefits will end June 26. Last week, the agency also nixed the online chat function it had added to the CONNECT website.

Related: Florida to turn away $300 unemployment aid

“We’re in a situation where we have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of job openings,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “Our view is the unemployment should be a pre-pandemic type framework.”

Oglesby said although the department prioritized increasing customer service staff during the height of the pandemic, it had always planned to phase out the call centers as the economy rebounded. She pointed to Florida’s lowering unemployment rate — 4.8 percent in April, representing 487,000 out-of-work Floridians from a workforce of more than 10 million — and twelve consecutive months of job growth as factors in the state’s decision.

In November, Eagle, a former Republican lawmaker from Cape Coral who was appointed by DeSantis to lead the Department of Economic Opportunity in September, said he “would like to get rid of the call centers completely” as claims declined, which they have.

During the week that ended June 5, for example, the U.S. Department of Labor counted 5,800 new claims filed in Florida — down from 8,257 filed the week prior. That’s on par with the number of claims the state received before the pandemic began. For comparison, during the week ending April 18, 2020, the state received 506,670 new claims.

But despite the number of people returning to work, Vanessa Brito, a political consultant from Miami who’s become Floridians’ go-to source for navigating the CONNECT website, emphasized there are still thousands of residents who haven’t been able to find new jobs or whose industries are still scaled back.

There’s also a backlog of claims the state hasn’t processed because of problems with the state’s fraud-prevention system, ID.me, and persistent glitches with CONNECT.

“Dane Eagle acknowledged that there was a huge backlog two months ago, but you just fired everyone who’s on the phones ... how are you going to address the backlog?” Brito asked.

Jade Apisuk and his wife, Aaron Turner, have the same question. Since early March, Turner hasn’t been able to log in to her CONNECT account and stopped receiving her weekly $425 checks — $125 from the state and $300 from the federal government.

“I’ve called all hours of the day, hundreds of times. It’s a total black hole,” Apisuk said.

Apisuk, a wholesaler for a wine and spirits distributor, saw most of his business dry up once the pandemic hit and the government shut down non-essential businesses to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. One of his biggest accounts was Walt Disney World and its resort hotels. Turner was an event planner.

Luckily, Apisuk hasn’t had trouble with his account. But to make ends meet, the couple has had to apply for rental assistance through Orange County and get on food stamps. They have two kids, an 8-year-old and a 14-year-old.

“I think it’s crazy they’re shutting down a call center when it’s not over,” Apisuk said. “Not everyone’s back to work now.”

Last year, expanding call centers was one of several things the state did to review claims faster after Florida made national headlines for having only processed 4 percent of jobless applications.

In total, Florida spent $39 million to enlist call centers, add 100 new computer servers, launch a mobile-friendly version of CONNECT and develop a “virtual waiting room” to control how many people accessed the site at once. More than 2,000 employees were transferred from other agencies and the state began accepting paper applications.

At this year’s legislative session, Florida lawmakers had the chance to allocate $36 million to resolve existing claims, money that would have paid for additional part-time and full-time employees, but decided to spend that money on modernizing the CONNECT website instead.

Lawmakers agreed to spend $92 million to upgrade the site, which launched in 2013 for $81 million. Eagle previously said the site could cost as much as $244 million over the next five years.

Oglesby said that money will enable the state to provide a more “user-friendly” system and hire 435 new employees.

She argued that “utilizing internal DEO employees instead of contracted call center staff will allow these employees to better assist claimants with any issues,” echoing Eagle’s previous comments that call centers weren’t adequately trained because they had to be set up so quickly.

But Eskamani and Brito said so far, that hasn’t been the case.

“The message coming out of Tallahassee is ‘the pandemic’s gone, let’s move on,’” Eskamani said. “What they don’t understand or they don’t care about is thousands of people are still missing benefits and thousands still need assistance, and cutting off access is not going to make the problem go away, it’s going to make the problem worse.”