Few unemployment checks have gone out the door in Florida

Payments have been made to roughly 4 percent of the more than 800,000 people who have filed jobless claims since the novel coronavirus started closing businesses across the state.

Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Thursday that checks have been sent to 33,623 people who have applied for benefits since the beginning of March through the troubled unemployment-compensation system.

With early qualifiers drawing multiple checks, about $50 million has gone out in state assistance --- in checks of up to $275 a person a week.

Separately, 23,801 checks have gone out to people who have qualified for federal money under a new federal stimulus law. The federal payments go up to $600 a week.

“While we’ve made some progress in the recent days, it’s not nearly enough. We’ve had an unprecedented number of claims and we have to work through them,” DeSantis said.

On Wednesday, DeSantis removed Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson from oversight of the CONNECT unemployment system. He put the system, which cost $77 million to get online in 2013, into the hands of Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.

Part of the reason was an inability of Lawson’s department to provide daily updates on claims and payments.

The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday reported an estimated 181,293 first-time unemployment claims were filed in Florida during the week ending April 11, though that estimate is below a number DeSantis provided last week.

Since March 8, the Department of Labor estimated 660,438 initial claims had been made in Florida.

On Thursday, DeSantis signed an executive order that eliminated a requirement for people who qualify for jobless benefits to recertify their claims every two weeks.

“Even though I had told them to waive any needless bureaucratic rules, I had to today sign an executive order to suspend the need for people to return to the CONNECT system to recertify their unemployment status,” DeSantis said. “We understand what is going on with the economy now. We hope it’s short term, but clearly this is not something that if you look hard enough you’re going to find a new job.”

DeSantis added that the change will relieve some stress but isn’t a “silver bullet” to speed the process.

To try to address issues with backlogs and problems with filing applications, hundreds of call-center operators have been rushed through training, paper applications have been made available and more than 100 computer servers have been brought in.

Satter said efforts continue to make the system more accessible to gig workers, who don’t qualify for state assistance but do qualify for the federal benefits.

“We’re building a separate portal for those gig workers, independent contractors, and we’re hoping to have that ready in about a week to 10 days,” Satter said.

DeSantis said he will have his first meeting by phone Friday with a task force designed to help devise plans to reopen services and businesses across the state.

Members of the task force haven’t been named, but DeSantis said he wants proposals on reopening quickly.

“It’s not going to be something that’s going to take four weeks,” DeSantis said. “This is something within a three-to-five-day period, I want the best ideas we can get.”

DeSantis noted that President Donald Trump, who announced a similar task force this week, was looking at a phased approach to reopening parts of the economy. DeSantis has been acting in concert with the White House in response to the virus.