33,000 Floridians have received unemployment claims, says DeSantis: ‘It’s not nearly enough.’

Hundreds of thousands more are waiting for help.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks about Florida's unemployment system. Jonathan Satter, the Department of Management Services secretary Jonathan Satter, looks on.
Gov. Ron DeSantis talks about Florida's unemployment system. Jonathan Satter, the Department of Management Services secretary Jonathan Satter, looks on. [ LAWRENCE MOWER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published April 16, 2020|Updated April 16, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Just over 33,000 Floridians thrown out of work in the last month have received their unemployment claims, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday, a small fraction of the total number of people who have asked the state for help.

“It’s not nearly enough,” DeSantis said. “We have an unprecedented amount of claims, and we’ve got to get through them."

DeSantis could not say Thursday how many claims have been filed, but the number is likely well over 1 million, meaning just 3.3 percent of them have received help.

To free up capacity on the system, DeSantis announced Thursday he was issuing an executive order waiving the requirement that Floridians log in to the unemployment website every two weeks to claim their benefits.

“This will hopefully free up some more space to move claims through,” DeSantis said.

In 2011, DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott supported, and signed legislation requiring recipients to apply online every two weeks, along with taking a 45-question skills test and proving every week that they’ve sought work from five employers. DeSantis had earlier waved those other two requirements, but the waiver missed the bi-weekly online reapplication requirement.

Thursday’s executive order was hailed by some Democratic lawmakers who had received messages from constituents who had successfully applied for claims the first time — only to be locked out when they reapplied.

“We openly called for this and appreciate the action and hope it won’t take weeks to implement,” tweeted Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. “People need these unnecessary obstacles eliminated immediately!”

For the first time since the state’s unemployment crisis started a month ago, DeSantis’ administration released details Thursday about why the state has struggled to process claims and how many they have left.

The state has a backlog of about 850,000 applications to process to determine if those people are eligible for unemployment insurance payments, which max out at $275 per week — the stingiest in the nation.

Related: Florida’s broken unemployment system to get new boss, DeSantis says

And the state’s 7-year-old unemployment website has been crippled by the workload. It was taken offline Wednesday night to undergo upgrades, and it will be taken offline Thursday night for additional maintenance, according to Jonathan Satter, the secretary of Department of Management Services who on Wednesday was tapped by DeSantis to oversee the unemployment system.

Satter compared the unemployment system to a high-mileage 7-year-old car.

“We’ve just loaded the car with a lot of passengers, and we’re expecting the car to drive 10 times as fast as it was meant to go,” Satter said. “So we occasionally have to take the car in for a pit stop."

The system has to verify Social Security numbers, scan for fraud and verify the applicants’ past employers, among other tasks. When times were good, a claim still took up to two weeks to process, Satter said.

He could not say when more Floridians will start to see relief. He did say DeSantis’ executive order on Thursday will immediately allow the state to get relief to another 80,000 Floridians this week.

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Floridians who are gig workers, self-employed or independent contractors might have to wait even longer to receive the $600-per-week federal unemployment benefits. Satter said the state was creating a portal for those people to apply for unemployment, which should be available in 7 to 10 days.

Many people who qualify for the federal benefits have found their applications rejected, since they don’t qualify for the state benefits. But Satter said the state is aware that those people are eligible, and although they’ve been rejected, the state has swept them into a separate bucket to be paid eventually.

Related: Florida is spending up to $110 million to back up its failed unemployment website

A month into the state’s unemployment crisis, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity has struggled to take and process applications for unemployment. The department’s executive director, Ken Lawson, who was appointed by DeSantis last year, was replaced by Satter on Wednesday.

In announcing Lawson’s replacement Wednesday, DeSantis admitted the state did not know how many claims needed to be processed or how many people have been paid — simple benchmarks that would show whether the state was making progress in relieving the backlog of claims.

On Thursday, federal officials announced another 181,283 Floridians signed up for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total to 653,000 in the last month. That number is a gross undercount, considering how many applications have yet to be processed.

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