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Workers Lose In Legal Effort To Get The State To Speed Up Processing Unemployment Claims

Employers continued to add jobs in February and the unemployment rate remained near historic lows.

Hundreds of thousands laid-off workers who can’t get their unemployment money from the state of Florida got more bad news Wednesday. A state judge says she had no authority to order the immediate payment of jobless claims.

As agonizing delays dragged on week after week with Florida’s overwhelmed re-employment assistance web site, some workers sued the state. They want a judge to force the state to immediately pay benefits. But after a 90-minute telephone hearing in Tallahassee, they got no relief. Because of the controversy surrounding Florida's broken benefits program, Wednesday’s hearing attracted an overwhelming amount of news media interest ... so much that it took nearly 10 minutes for all media outlets to identify themselves.

After hearing arguments, Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey dismissed a lawsuit that sought a writ of mandamus. That’s typically sought in cases in which the government fails to perform a duty it is legally required to perform. Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews is one of the attorneys for the workers.

"This isn’t like putting a man on the moon, this is like using a program that’s obsolete. So you, certainly have the right to issue an order, taking over the payment process and directing either DOE to hire a competent person to process these claims, or you find a competent company to process these claims,” said Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews.

Attorneys for the state cited numerous steps Governor Ron DeSantis has taken to speed up payment of benefits. One of the lawyers defending the state’s track record is James Uthmeier.

“State employees by the thousands are working around the clock 12,14-plus hour days to try to help Floridians. We know people are struggling out there. This unpredictable event, the coronavirus and its related implications, has really hurt people. We understand. The governor has taken numerous steps to try to help people,” he said.

The plaintiffs attorney’s were infuriated with the state’s position that the current conditions are not an emergency. And they were dealt a further blow when Judge Dempsey didn’t rule in their favor.

“I just don’t have authority to rewrite the statue or create a whole new pay and chase system as the plaintiffs are suggesting,” said the judge.

Wednesday’s hearing was mostly procedural, with very little detailed discussion of the difficulties workers are facing. The attorneys for the workers said they plan to immediately appeal Dempsey’s decision to the District Court of Appeal.

Copyright 2020 WFSU

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.