Jobless claims mount as state continues reopening

More than 200,000 new unemployment claims were filed last week in Florida, as the state is on the verge of the second phase of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to reemerge economically from the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday reported 1.88 million first-time unemployment claims nationally during the week that ended May 30, a drop of 249,000 from the prior week. It estimated 206,494 new claims in Florida, up 31,083 from the prior week.

Only California had more claims, 230,461, which was a drop of 27,199 from the prior week.

The federal report was released a day after DeSantis traveled to Universal Orlando to announce that the second phase of the state’s economic reopening will start Friday. It includes allowing bars, movie theaters and other entertainment venues to partially operate in all but three South Florida counties.

The businesses have been shut to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which put the brakes on the state’s economy, with tourism and hospitality-related industries the hardest hit.

Florida’s unemployment rate soared to 12.9 percent in April. The state will release a May jobless report on June 19. Nationally, more than 42.6 million claims have been filed since mid-March.

DeSantis used the Wednesday appearance to continue defending efforts to improve the state’s CONNECT online unemployment system, which even he has criticized as a “jalopy” as people have been frustrated in getting benefits.

“If you guys had any sense of this system, what it was looking like at the beginning of April, it was not looking good,” DeSantis said. “I mean, it was a very, very problematic system.”

DeSantis has directed an audit into the creation of the $77.9 million CONNECT system, which went live in 2013. Democrats have called for the investigation to include the handling of claims under DeSantis.

DeSantis said the state Department of Economic Opportunity continues to work with people caught up in the queues or bumped from the system because of incomplete paperwork.

“We’ve worked really hard at it,” DeSantis said. “It’s important to people, to get thrown out of a job just on the drop of a hat because of this mitigation is not easy, particularly for people who are making lower incomes, they don’t exactly have stashes of money in the bank.”

The first phase of the reopening effort started May 4 with restaurants and retailers in most of the state allowed to operate at 25 percent indoor occupancy and medical facilities allowed to resume elective procedures.

In the following weeks, the occupancy maximum was bumped to 50 percent, while gyms, barbershops and hair salons joined the reopening.

The state also recently gave approval for the reopening of major theme parks, with limited capacity and following sanitary guidelines. The closing of the parks had resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being put out of work. Universal Orlando will be the first to reopen to the public on Friday.

Since March 15, nearly 2.3 million jobless applications have been filed in Florida of which 1.84 million are considered “unique,” according to the Department of Economic Opportunity. The difference is due to duplicates or incomplete paperwork.

Of the unique claims, almost 1.83 million had been processed as of Tuesday, with 1.05 million people eligible for state assistance and 163,616 eligible for federal benefits. Another 456,534 had been ruled ineligible. The state administers the federal benefits.

The Department of Economic Opportunity has paid out $4.1 billion in benefits, of which $1.2 million was from the state.