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‘I’m freaked out’: Coronavirus is crippling Florida’s unemployment system

As Florida’s economy ground to a halt this week, Floridians flooded the program with calls and website requests, jamming up the lines and crashing the website.
Jason Lette, general manager, Stillwaters Tavern, St. Petersburg, uses a blower to clean the outdoor seating area of the restaurant on Beach Drive after closing to customers. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordered all restaurants to close dining and move to take-out or delivery only on Friday, March 20, 2020 because of the Coronavirus outbreak. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

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Allison Harris knew the layoff was inevitable. An assistant manager and a server at Baba in St. Petersburg, she wasn’t surprised when she and her colleagues were laid off on Thursday.

But when she sought help through Florida’s unemployment assistance website Friday morning, the site kept kicking her off. When she called, the line went straight to a recording saying the lines were busy.

Without any income, the single mother estimates she can last two weeks, maybe a little bit more.

“I’m freaked out right now,” said Harris, 40.

She’s not alone. The coronavirus is testing Florida’s unemployment assistance program, already stingy and unreliable, like it’s never been tested before.

As Florida’s economy ground to a halt this week, Floridians flooded the program with calls and website requests, jamming the lines and crashing the website.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’s aware of the problems, and his Department of Economic Opportunity is hiring another 100 call-takers to lessen the load and to keep the call center open every day. Even so, the state Department of Economic Opportunity said it would shut down the program’s online application system, CONNECT, for several hours Saturday for “system improvements.”

He’s also issued orders making it easier for people to qualify for unemployment and waived a rule that encouraged businesses to keep people on their payrolls at drastically reduced rates so the employees wouldn’t qualify for unemployment. DeSantis called it a “perverse incentive.”

“We know it’s going to be tough for a number of people,” he said. “We just want to remove any unintentional gamesmanship.”

But the state’s unemployment system has a fundamental problem that dates to the era of former Gov. Rick Scott and beyond.

“The system itself isn’t geared toward actually helping people,” said Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, who has asked DeSantis to make several immediate changes to help Floridians get unemployment.

The system is likely to continue to be overwhelmed.

The backbone of the state’s tourism-dependent economy — the restaurant and hotel industry — has been broken by patrons obeying orders to stay home. In a drastic effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, DeSantis declared all restaurants closed except for delivery and carry-out orders, compounding an industry’s woes.

Of the more than 1.5 million people who work in the state’s restaurant and hotel industry, only between 200,000 to 400,000 are still employed, estimates Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“The restaurant industry is dying. Literally dying,” said Dover, who was interviewed before DeSantis’ Friday executive order. “You can’t sugarcoat it.”

Just how many people have requested unemployment this week is unclear. The state is obeying a federal rule not to release numbers until Thursday.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity, which runs the unemployment system, has seen a “drastic increase” in calls this week, a spokeswoman said. The department received more than 130,000 calls — nearly five times more than the entire previous week.

Technical problems have dogged the state’s website since its inception. This week is only exacerbating those problems.

On Wednesday, Joseph Palma, 41, was laid off from his job at Miami International Airport working for a subcontractor for American Airlines. Since then, he’s been trying to apply for unemployment through the state’s website, which would freeze on each step, requiring him to call the state hotline, which led to hangups.

After two-and-a-half hours on hold Friday morning, he finally got through to an employee, who told him he’d have to go to a job placement agency, CareerSource, in Hialeah on Monday morning to apply.

“It’s almost impossible,” Palma said of the process. “It’s unfair.”

Even if Palma makes it through, he’ll receive some of the lowest compensation in the nation.

Florida provides a maximum of just $275 per week for unemployment, one of the lowest rates in the country and a figure that hasn’t changed in decades. Most people receive much less than that, based on their income, Rodríguez said.

On top of that, unemployment lasts only up to 12 weeks, again one of the lowest in the nation. Most states offer up to 26 weeks, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The system used to be marginally better, before Scott in 2011 advocated for more business-friendly policies.

Florida’s unemployment trust fund is paid by employers, who pay a percentage on each employee’s first $7,000 in wages. For the last five years, most companies have paid the bare minimum percentage: just 0.1 percent.

DeSantis touted that minimum percentage as a good thing in a news release last year.

“We remain committed to maintaining Florida’s business-friendly environment by lowering taxes, developing our workforce and making investments in education, infrastructure and the environment," he said.

The trust fund has about $4 billion to pay unemployment claims, twice as much as in 2008, when the Great Recession hit.

DeSantis said Thursday that he was waiving a requirement that applicants show proof that they are looking for work to keep the benefits. In the current environment, it’s nearly impossible for people to apply for jobs that aren’t even open, he said.

“We’d rather just get a relief to people, so we’re going to be waiving that,” DeSantis said.

Still, a 2015 study found just 18.7 percent of short-term unemployed Floridians received the state’s unemployment assistance, the fourth-lowest rate in the nation. That’s an indication that many people who need help aren’t getting it, according to Cindy Huddleston, a policy analyst with the nonprofit and nonpartisan Florida Policy Research Institute.

“Something is wrong,” Huddleston said. “People are falling through the cracks who shouldn’t be, en masse. It’s not just one or two.”

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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