TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A group of Floridians is suing the state after weeks of struggles and frustration navigating the unemployment system, its crashing website, and its overwhelmed call center. Many laid off due to COVID-19 have been left for almost two months without a single dollar.
Mike Latner's story starts like many others. "I was laid off on the 20th of March."
For weeks, the Citrus County restaurant worker wrestled with Florida's CONNECT unemployment site, logging on, getting kicked off, filing a claim, having it deleted, refiling and, despite holding the same job for almost two years, being deemed "ineligible."
"It said that I was ineligible because I didn't make any money at my job," Latner said, dumbfounded. "And, I was like, wait I minute. I put in how much I made. What do you mean I didn't make any money? "
He filed an appeal. Then, he filed a class-action lawsuit.
"I also want the system to be fixed and I want the people that broke the system to be held accountable," Latner said.
"The unemployment system is supposed to work for them, not prevent them from surviving," said Julie Meadows-Keefe, an attorney with Marie Mattox Law Firm.
Tallahassee attorneys Marie Mattox and Gautier Kitchen are leading the fight. The lawsuit names the Department of Economic Opportunity, Governor Ron DeSantis and the company that designed the software, Deloitte Consulting, as defendants.
It states plaintiffs "have not been able to obtain benefits... due to gross negligence and/or negligence of defendants. The system design and/or implementation is a failure."
"We're trying to get the people immediate relief," Meadows-Keefe said. "That means that if they are entitled to benefits, that they receive the benefits in a timely way. That the waiting stops."
DeSantis has also faulted the system created in 2013 while Rick Scott was still governor.
“It was designed with all these different things to basically, I think, to fail," DeSantis said previously. "The fact that the state paid $77 million for this thing. It’s a jalopy.”
Since March, the DEO has upgraded software capacity, beefed-up call center staff, and processed 674,000 claims to help get checks out faster. But, almost 40% have been deemed ineligible.
"We'd like for them to have a right to reapply and to know the reason why they were being denied," Meadows-Keefe said.
The Mattox and Kitchen law offices are hearing from thousands wanting to join the lawsuit. The immediate goal: checks for those still waiting. The long-term goal: prevent this from happening again.
"I'm just a guy that wants to go back to work so I can support my family," Latner said. "I'm responsible for every action in my life. They need to be also."
An emergency hearing initially planned for this week was pushed back to give the state time to file a motion to dismiss. The hearing is set for next Wednesday.
While the state's expected to ask the judge to throw out the case, the plaintiffs' attorneys will ask the judge to order that those who are due money are immediately paid.