Floridians could wait weeks for unemployment checks, officials say

One problem: the website’s backup system wasn’t connected until Sunday night.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a news conference Tuesday, March 31, 2020. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published April 6, 2020|Updated April 6, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida officials say they made huge improvements to the unemployment system over the weekend, but the state still faces a massive backlog of applications that will likely require Floridians wait weeks before seeing any money.

During a Monday news conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis and state officials said they’re aiming to process 80,000 applications this week, a drastic increase from the prior week.

But the state already has a backlog of more than 560,000 applications, and potentially hundreds of thousands of other Floridians have been unable to apply because of the website’s problems. Over 62,000 people filed for unemployment on Sunday alone, they said.

That means that people might have to wait weeks before learning whether they’re eligible for state unemployment, which maxes out at $275 per week.

The wait might be even longer for gig economy workers, contractors and people who are self-employed, who qualify for the $600-per-week federal benefits, but not the state benefits.

Those workers have to use the state system to apply. But state officials said Monday no such process has been created yet to handle their claims, and they did not provide a timeline for when such a process will be in place.

The faulty system has caused Floridians to miss out on critical weeks of unemployment checks. DeSantis said Monday that the state’s unemployment system has been crushed by the record number of people thrown out of work by the coronavirus.

The state’s website, the primary way to apply for unemployment, has been riddled with error messages and glitches that have prevented people from applying. The call center, the secondary way to apply, has been no better, with callers facing up to 12 hours on hold, if they’re able to connect at all.

The system was supposed to have a backup in case it failed, but officials recently learned that the backup had its own critical failure: it wasn’t hooked up to the system.

“It turns out that backup was never actually connected to the system,” DeSantis said Monday. It was connected Sunday night.

Next week will be a month since Florida, like the rest of the nation, saw a historic number of unemployment claims. Each week that Floridians don’t receive unemployment checks turns a crisis into an economic disaster for the state.

The situation is so critical that Congress should start to consider taking the money out of the state unemployment systems and use the money to just send everyone checks, said U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla.

“I’m increasingly inclined to go back and say, ‘Let’s take the money and just distribute it to people,’” she said Monday.

She said her cousin was able to file for unemployment in Ohio in a day. That state has also struggled to handle the record number of claims.

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“What we have is a bunch of amateurs that don’t know how to manage in complex crisis situations,” she said. “We’re the United States of America. We ought to be able to solve a technology problem.”

DeSantis has also delayed making a crucial decision about when unemployment benefits should start.

Under state law, benefits start the week you apply for them, not the week you’re laid off. But many Floridians say they’ve been unable to apply because of the state’s broken system, depriving them of potentially weeks of benefits.

For more than a week, Democratic state lawmakers have urged DeSantis to allow Floridians to receive unemployment the week they were laid off. That move would likely require an executive order by DeSantis.

However, he said Monday he still has not made a decision about it. When pressed repeatedly about when such a decision would be made, the man who oversees the unemployment system, Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson, said it would be made this week.

Next week will mark a month since Florida saw a record spike in unemployment claims.

Monday’s news conference included Lawson and two other state officials praising DeSantis’ decisive decisions. The governor has marshaled hundreds of state employees to process unemployment applications and hired companies to provide hundreds more people to take calls.

DeSantis also said the website has vastly improved with the addition of 72 more servers to handle the workload. The site can now handle up to 120,000 simultaneous requests, double or triple what it was capable of last week, he said.

Lawson declined to call the website “fixed,” however.

“I think this is our test week,” Lawson said. “Make sure that what we’ve done, our improvements, are holding.”

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