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Florida’s newly unemployed get little help from troubled website

A costly online processing system has never handled a high volume of calls well. Recently, with low unemployment, that wasn’t a problem. But the agency went from 28,000 calls the first week of March, to 224,000 calls the next week. It’s only getting worse.
A usually active 200 block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg is eerily quiet at around 9:30 pm on Wednesday night March 18, 2020 as restaurants and bars closed early due to the government mandated operating restrictions including alcohol sales impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. [BOYZELL HOSEY | BOYZELL HOSEY | Times]

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TALLAHASSEE — A tsunami of the freshly unemployed has swamped the Florida office in charge of helping them process claims from layoffs caused by the expanding coronavirus crisis.

Frustrated applicants have flooded social media to report a slew of problems: getting kicked off the website by errors, getting locked out of accounts and failure at reaching a human being on the phone — no matter how often they call.

Anthony White, a bartender at the Nautilus Hotel in South Beach before social distancing triggered restaurant and bar closures across Miami-Dade County, said he sets his alarm every morning so he can call the unemployment office the moment it opens. It’s still not early enough. When he dials in at precisely 7:30 a.m., he hears a recording that says all lines are busy. Then it hangs up.

White is one of the tens of thousands turning to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, the agency in charge of Florida’s unemployment benefits. Many are finding an agency that’s understaffed and unprepared for the onslaught.

“This is not an easy one-two-three step process. It’s really difficult,” said White, 45. “What is really scary for me and lots of other people, if we’re going to go into a system of lockdown and relying on the government to take care of us and our first experience with it is this — how does that make you feel?”

The office says it is scrambling to boost its staff and technology to keep up with the “historic” demand, including a nearly eight-fold jump in calls.

In a Tuesday news conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis said 21,000 Floridians filed claims on Monday, with 18,000 more the day before and another 21,000 on March 20. That’s a massive surge from just a few weeks ago. In the first week of March, 5,325 people filed for unemployment in Florida.

“This is a huge increase, and it just shows you how so many people have been dislocated,” DeSantis said. “Man. That’s not only going to have an economic cost. That will have a health cost unless we work to remedy that.”

To succeed in getting the compensation takes around-the-clock commitment.

Allison Harris, an assistant manager at server at Baba in St. Petersburg until she was laid off last week, couldn’t use the website to apply for benefits Friday morning because it kept crashing.

Harris, 40, decided to try again at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, hoping there would be few people also trying to apply. The site crashed a few times, but she was able to get through.

Her status is now “pending.”

The Department of Economic Opportunity acknowledged that staffing is at a “minimum,” as department funding is tied to the state’s unemployment rate.

“We are doing everything we can. We are adding servers on a daily basis and we are adding people for the call lines,” said Tiffany Vause, spokeswoman for the agency. She said the department is hiring more than a hundred people to answer the phone.

The agency went from 28,000 calls the first week of March, she said, to 224,000 calls the next week.

Vause urged Floridians to “be patient and keep trying.”

“COVID-19 happened to us like it happened to you,” she said. “We went from having 2.8 percent unemployment in January to all of the restaurants and bars closing overnight.”

Florida did move to open benefits to more people. Under a new executive order signed Tuesday, DeSantis relaxed a couple of standards for unemployment seekers. They no longer have to apply to five jobs a week to receive benefits or fill out an application for Employ Florida, where applicants used to track their progress on finding a new job. This retroactively applies to March 15.

“Thanks for this first step,” tweeted State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat representing Miami-Dade who has pushed for reforms of the state’s unemployment system, which is one of the stingiest in the nation. Only four states pay less than Florida’s $275 a week.

“There’s probably no system in the country that is more poorly designed to handle this,” he said.

But to access that funding requires navigating a website users describe as “antiquated” and “like something from the 1980s.”

Lisa Wright, 56, recently lost her job as a software consultant for a cruise line. She said navigating Florida’s unemployment website, especially as someone who finds bugs on websites for a living, was incredibly frustrating.

“There’s so many points of failure here,” she said. “I have zero confidence in the system.”

A growing issue appears to be with users who’ve received unemployment before. When they attempt to login now, the system recognizes their identity and asks them to reset their pin.

Patricia Lombillo, a South Miami woman who lost her job in travel concessions on Friday, said to reset her pin she had to answer security questions from the last time she used the service, a decade ago. One asked her favorite travel destination.

“I have no idea what it was ten years ago. Did I write it with capitals? Who knows,” she said.

Lombillo, 43, said she answered the question wrong and was promptly locked out of her account. The only way back in is through a Department of Economic Opportunity staffer manually unlocking her account.

She said she calls the office “40 to 50 times an hour, every hour it’s open” and writes a daily email to the address listed on the site. She even tried tweeting at the office.

“It is impossible to get through,” she said. “If being patient and waiting were really what it took and I was assured someone would reach out to me then I would. But what promise do I have that they will?”

The website’s problems go back to the earliest days of the Gov. Rick Scott administration. Scott won the election in 2010 riding the Tea Party wave and promising to restore jobs.

His top priorities included a sweeping reorganization of the state’s unemployment system that even included eliminating the word “unemployment.” Before Scott, the program was called the Unemployment Compensation Benefits Program. He renamed it the Reemployment Assistance Program.

And part of that was overhauling the state’s unemployment system website. The state hired Deloitte Consulting, a major contractor whose high-powered lobbyists at the time included Brian Ballard, the co-chair of Scott’s inaugural finance committee, to create the new site.

Deloitte had troubles from the start. Two years before the site launched, the Department of Economic Opportunity was warning the project was underperforming and behind schedule. Department officials were threatening to fine Deloitte $15,000 per day until it revised its final design. At one point they threatened to fire the company.

When the new site launched in October 2013, it was a disaster. Website glitches locked thousands of recipients out of the system and delayed their payments by weeks.

An audit conducted four months later found that just about anything that could go wrong was going wrong.

The website cost $77 million, $14 million more than its previous estimate. It required applicants to sign in using their Social Security numbers, which was illegal under state law.

Its automated functions repeatedly entered wrong data, such as inaccurate postmarks on documents, which could negate a claim. And its payments and charges were often erroneous — one claimant was overcharged by $16,897, for example.

That’s on top of the rampant fraud. Because of lax safeguards, more than 20,000 potentially ineligible claims were paid out over a four-month period.

Vause said the site has received steady upgrades since then, and that state unemployment sites all across the country have been overwhelmed.

“Everybody in the country is having that issue,” she said.

Times staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this story.

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