Florida to beef up overwhelmed unemployment system

Jessie Morancy uses her computer to fill out an application for unemployment benefits after being laid off from her job at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport on March 27, 2020 in Hollywood, Florida. ( Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images )

Paper applications for jobless benefits will soon be accepted as Florida’s rapidly growing ranks of out-of-work people have overwhelmed the online unemployment-compensation system.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday expanded the way people can file applications for benefits while directing agency heads from throughout state government to find employees --- many now working from home because of the novel coronavirus --- to “beef up” unemployment assistance call centers.

He also directed Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson to purchase software to add capacity to the online system.

“We’re in a situation where this system is not handling the needs of the people of Florida in an adequate way,” DeSantis told reporters at the Capitol. “So, we need to do more to be able to get relief to the people of Florida.”

DeSantis also issued an executive order to provide temporary relief from certain mortgage foreclosures and evictions for 45 days.

“I’m not sure that you’re going to rent out a lot of new places right now anyways, but nevertheless you just never know how people are going to act,” DeSantis said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity has received more than 348,000 unemployment applications in the past two weeks, with an additional 2.1 million telephone calls for assistance in navigating the online system and the requirements to qualify for benefits.

In all of 2019, the Department of Economic Opportunity received just over 307,000 applications for benefits. And from August 2018 to February of this year, the call center fielded 2.39 million calls.

“When you have these abrupt changes, to just be able to talk to someone on the phone or to know that when you submit something, it actually goes through … obviously you want to be able to get the assistance,” DeSantis said. “But, if you can at least get a system where people are able to get in touch with somebody, I think that would give people a lot more peace of mind.”

Lawson has already shifted workers within his agency to the call center, set out to hire 100 new employees and is bringing in outside vendors, but the system continues to struggle.

Businesses have shut down or scaled back quickly as the coronavirus has spread across the state. DeSantis on Wednesday also issued an executive order aimed at getting Floridians to stay home this month because of the virus, which causes the deadly respiratory disease COVID-19.

DeSantis said returning the state to normal may not be quick, with continued unemployment problems.

“I wish I could say that this is just something that is going to last a couple of weeks. But I think that is not something that you could just turn on and off in an economy like this,” DeSantis said. “We need to expand the capacity. But, just understand that this is going to a problem that could be with us for more than a couple of weeks.”

Florida’s unemployment benefits top out at $275 a week for 12 weeks. But a new federal stimulus law is  slated to provide an additional $600 a week, for four months, to people who qualify through the state.

On Wednesday, Lawson lifted a requirement that people qualifying for unemployment benefits must wait a week before their first checks are sent.

The waiting period had been among several issues raised by Democrats and labor leaders, who have complained about the system. They also have requested changes such as expanding the number of weeks of available benefits; considering  workers’ most-recent quarter of earnings when calculating potential benefits as a way to help seasonal workers; and changing eligibility requirements that currently include filling out an application that can take several hours.