Florida’s unemployment system is still a cruel joke | Editorial
Even more needs to be done to clear the backlog of hundreds of thousands of claims
Hillborough County Library service worker Stephen Duran passes out reemployment forms to a motorist Friday, April 17, 2020, at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library in Tampa, Fla.  (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Hillborough County Library service worker Stephen Duran passes out reemployment forms to a motorist Friday, April 17, 2020, at the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published April 17, 2020

Let’s get this straight: In the month since unemployment spiked, only 33,000 Floridians have received jobless assistance, even though 20 times that number have applied? This system is a national disgrace, a cruel joke for desperate families and a major barrier for churning much-needed cash through the paralyzed economy. Gov. Ron DeSantis needs to do even more get this system up to speed faster.

The governor said Friday that officials were doing as much as they could and noted the system works better than it did last week. That’s hardly a comfort, giving how chronically broken and backlogged the process remains, and the continuing delays in getting jobless Floridians even the stingy assistance that Florida provides. Federal officials announced Thursday that another 181,283 Floridians signed up for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total to 653,000 in the last month. But that number is surely an under-count, because many applications have not been processed. The true number of claims could be 1 million or more, dwarfing the number of jobless Floridians who have received help.

This system isn’t working for anybody. DeSantis has devoted more resources and staff to increase the state’s capacity to process claims and to field the calls from anxious Floridians who are in dire need of assistance. On Thursday, the governor signed an executive order waiving the requirement that Floridians log on to the state’s system every two weeks to claim their benefits, which removes another needless barrier. This week, he also tapped Jonathan Satter, the secretary of Department of Management Services, to oversee the unemployment system.

But it’s still not clear that DeSantis or Satter appreciate the scope of the crisis - or the damage that this delay in financial assistance is having on the larger economy. The state’s backlog of about 850,000 applications will take time to process. Yet the state’s unemployment website was taken offline for hours at a time this week for additional maintenance. Satter could not predict when more Floridians would see relief. While tens of thousands could soon receive benefits, that’s only a fraction of the outstanding caseload. The state could still be another week or longer away from devising a portal so gig workers, the self-employed and independent contractors who don’t qualify for state benefits but can apply for the new $600-per-week in federal jobless assistance.

This is what happens when a state creates a system aimed at discouraging the unemployed to file claims instead of making it easy for the jobless to obtain the benefits they are entitled to receive. With another month’s rent, utility and other routine expenses only two weeks away, countless Floridians have nowhere to turn. It could be weeks or more before many get into the pipeline, and weeks even later until some money rolls in. In the meantime, families go without, and the drop in spending cascades across the economy.

DeSantis needs to provide a detailed, daily update on how the system is improving, and he needs to vastly expand the state’s capabilities to process claims and to work with those who are having trouble navigating the bureaucracy. At a maximum of $275 a week, Florida’s unemployment assistance is already among the lowest in the country. The least the governor can do is ensure needy Floridians receive these meager benefits they are due.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news