State Unemployment System Comes Under Fire As Paper Applications Are Made Available

Gov. Ron DeSantis is focusing on improvements being made to the state’s overwhelmed unemployment-compensation system, rather than his embattled appointee overseeing the work. Meanwhile, paper applications are being made available across the state.

DeSantis, during a Monday news conference at the Capitol that also included Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson, called the difficulties encountered by people seeking unemployment benefits “totally unacceptable.”

The system has been overwhelmed as businesses have shuttered or scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic. But newly made changes allowed the system to handle more than 22,000 unemployment applications before 10 a.m. Monday, officials said.

While demands on the system went up in recent weeks, DeSantis said people have faced difficulties because they “were having a tough time getting on. The site was down even more than it was even up at given times.”

DeSantis also said that two weeks ago he was advised the online system was the “way to go.”

“And obviously it wasn’t ready,” DeSantis said.

But DeSantis said he likes improvements coming from Lawson and other state agency heads as jobless claims have skyrocketed. When asked if the system was fixed, Lawson said the changes have made the process “better."

Related: DeSantis Orders Additional Servers, Employees In Rush To Fortify Beleaguered Unemployment System

Hundreds of call center operators are being rushed through training, dozens of computer servers were brought from Orlando over the weekend to boost the online system’s capacity, and paper applications are being made available.

Gov. DeSantis announced on Twitter that more than 100 FedEx storefronts throughout Florida would be offering free printing and mailing for reemployment assistance applications.

CareerSource Northeast Florida, a regional workforce development organization, also announced it would be making paper reemployment assistance applications available for pickup in front of eight of its locations throughout the First Coast, at the request of Gov. DeSantis:

  • 1184 South 6th St. Macclenny, FL 32063
  • 1845 Town Center Blvd., Suite 150 Fleming Island, FL32003
  • 215 N. Market St. Jacksonville, FL 32202
  • 5000 Norwood Ave., Suite 2 Jacksonville, FL 32208
  • 11160 Beach Blvd., Suite 111 Jacksonville, FL 32246
  • 96042 Lofton Square Ct. Yulee, FL 32097
  • 400 Highway 19 North, Suite 53 Palatka, FL 32177
  • 525 State Road 16, Suite 109 St. Augustine, FL 32084

Along with those applications pre-addressed envelopes will be available beginning Wednesday, making it easier for applicants to fill forms out at home and put them in the mail. At these sites, applications will be available in English, Spanish, and Creole. CareerSource will initially print 10,000 applications.

The applications and envelopes will be available for self-service pickup outside of the centers. No staff will be available onsite.

"Our staff are using gloves and working to make sure that we are preventing the spread [of coronavirus], but we're also asking people to respect social distancing as they approach the centers to make sure that they're not having too much contact with other people who might be in line or accessing the materials," said Candace Moody, Vice President of Communications for CareerSource Northeast Florida. "We're doing the best we can with what we can control. But once the papers are outside of our control, there's nothing that you can do about that."

Related: Local, State, And National Coronavirus Coverage

State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson is also making paper applications, in English and Spanish, available outside of her office at 309 Kingsley Lake Dr. Unit 902, St. Augustine, FL 32092.

“The system needs to be fixed, and it seems like they’re making some progress. But I just know people are frustrated and we need to do all that we can to help DEO, help our citizens get their applications filed so they know that they can get some financial relief,” she said. “I just think that’s part of serving the community.”

Rep. Stevenson’s office is also printing forms and taking them to the St. Johns County School Board Office. The school board has agreed to make those forms available at their grab and go food distribution sites throughout the county.

Reemployment assistance applications can also be printed from home and mailed to DEO. Printable forms in English, Spanish, and Creole, along with mailing information, can be found here.

Also over the weekend, the state activated a previously built-in backup to the Department of Economic Opportunity’s CONNECT unemployment system. The backup was designed as a redundancy when the system went down but had not been connected.

Lawson said he couldn’t answer how the system’s response would have been improved if the backup system was operational.

DeSantis, who took only a couple of questions from reporters, didn’t address a request on Friday by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, for an audit of the unemployment system or a separate call by Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, for Lawson to resign.

Related: Local Food Bank Partnership Keeps Restaurant Workers Employed, Feeds Low-Income Seniors

Lawson said after the news conference that he is focused on improving the system for people out of work rather than his own job security.

“My job right now is to do everything I can to make the system work,” Lawson said. “Today, make the system work. Today, make sure people don’t lose confidence in the government.”

Toledo wants the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to audit spending on the CONNECT system, which cost $77 million to get online in 2013. Toledo serves on the committee.

Cruz pointed to “a complete breakdown in communication” as she demanded the resignation of Lawson.

“I understand the reemployment assistance benefit website was designed to fail, and that was not an action taken by your administration,” Cruz wrote to DeSantis. “But we need a plan, and that information must be communicated to members of the Legislature so we may effectively serve our constituents. All the department has communicated to me on the reemployment benefits system is to ‘be patient.’ and to ask those I represent to ‘be patient.’ That is disgraceful.”

Also involved in Monday’s event were Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter and Department of Revenue Executive Director Jim Zingale, whose agencies have identified workers that could be shifted to help in handling the mounting paperwork.

Lawson, who apologized for the system’s failures on Thursday during a Zoom teleconference with a couple of state lawmakers, said he’s seen changes “every day.”

Related: State’s Promised Unemployment Fixes Not Showing Up Yet

To handle the increase in calls by people seeking assistance, a three-week training period has been cut to a matter of days. About 250 people started answering calls on Monday after being trained over the weekend. Another 500 people were being trained Monday to answer calls starting Tuesday.

Part of the increased staff will contact people who have applied for benefits to determine where they are in the process or to verify that applications have been completed, Lawson said.

Lawson said the system is set up so jobless contractors and other gig workers who may not qualify for Florida’s assistance of up to $275 a week for 12 weeks can file applications so they will be eligible for benefits through a federal-stimulus law. The federal law is slated to provide $600 a week for 13 weeks.

DeSantis also said Monday the state may consider allowing benefits to be retroactive to when people were laid off from their jobs rather than when applications were approved.

“If they’ve been frustrated from applying, and then finally now the system is better to apply, then I think that should be something that is taken into consideration,” DeSantis said. “I mean, it’s not like they were just sitting on their hands, not doing anything.”

Information on filing for reemployment assistance online is available here.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.