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Florida’s unemployed must now wait in ‘virtual room’ before logging in, frustrating many

The state says the new process is meant to manage the number of people using the site.

TALLAHASSEE — Unemployed Floridians are now required to “wait in line” to use the state’s unemployment website, further aggravating people who were already fed up with the system.

Rather than allowing people to automatically log in to the state site, called CONNECT, users now have to enter a virtual “waiting room" with wait times longer than an hour. Users’ progress is indicated by a stick figure walking across the screen.

The new process prompted out-of-work Floridians to email reporters and take to Twitter in exasperation. CONNECT is routinely taken down on the weekends and at night, and some users said Monday they were kicked out even after waiting more than an hour to log in.

State officials rolled out the change to further ration how many people access the online site at the same time, said Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Tiffany Vause.

“The CONNECT Virtual Waiting Room allows claimants to reserve their place in line while other claimants access the system,” Vause said.

The change is just the latest indication of how much state officials have struggled to improve the state’s unemployment website since it started experiencing a crush of pandemic-related unemployment claims since mid-March.

Related: Florida's unemployed still haven't been paid. And they don't think it's their fault.

Vause said that when the $77 million Connect system launched in 2013, it was designed to serve just 1,000 concurrent users at a time. State officials have recently improved that to 80,000 concurrent users, Vause said.

But more than 2 million unemployment claims have been filed in Florida, and most of those people have to use CONNECT to affirm that they’re still unemployed, update their applications or otherwise manage their account.

The strain could become even worse. Unless Gov. Ron DeSantis issues another executive order, users will also have to use CONNECT to report the results of their job searches every week starting June 14.

Joe Kuehn, of Safety Harbor, lost his job as sales representative just before the pandemic hit. When he got on the phone with a reporter, he had watched the little white figure stroll across his computer screen for more than an hour.

“Is this what $77 million buys you?” Kuehn, 57, said. “This is just unbelievable.”

Both he and his wife have also filed for unemployment, and Kuehn himself is locked out of the system because the state says he needs to confirm his identity. (He said he’s sent them all the documents they’ve requested.)

Kuehn was trying to log in to claim benefits on behalf of his daughter, a restaurant hostess whose hours were cut because of the pandemic. Earlier in the day, Kuehn lost his place in the “waiting room” after his computer went to sleep. When the stick figure reaches its destination, the user has 10 minutes to log in. If they don’t within that time period, they go back to the end of the line.

“You can’t concentrate on other things if every 10 to 15 minutes you have to look at the little man to see where he is,” Kuehn said.

While on the phone with a reporter, the “little man” reached the end of his virtual brick road, and Kuehn’s computer chimed.

He entered his daughter’s information and logged in. But CONNECT gave him disappointing news: His daughter couldn’t claim her weeks on Monday. The earliest date she could do so is Tuesday, the site stated.

Kuehn would have to go to the back of the line and try again.

“So I just wasted two hours,” Kuehn said. “I guess I’ll wait another two hours tomorrow.”

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