It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in Florida’s unemployment numbers. And Floridians are still saying the State’s website is a mess with many waiting months for their first payment.
After four years working as an analyst in the CareCentrix auditing the department, Jocelyn Smith didn’t anticipate herself filling out any more job applications.
“I thought that was gonna be the last job that I was gonna have,” she said. “I planned to stay there for the long term. Thought I was gonna retire from there.”
She also didn’t see herself waiting hours, weeks and now months for even a single payment from Florida’s Reemployment Assistance program. Not a year after she first heard the horror stories about waits, the site crashes and the delays affecting millions of unemployed Floridians.
“Now I’m one of them and I don’t think anything has been resolved since last year,” Smith said.
Smith, a St. Pete resident, was laid off on Jan. 15. Ten months after Florida was first made aware that CONNECT, its buggy online portal, couldn’t handle the deluge of applicants.
Smith filed for assistance just a few days after getting laid off. A software malfunction led to a rejected application. That got fixed, but the delays didn’t stop. Now, exactly two months later, Smith still hasn’t received a payment. She won’t even use the system anymore. Instead, she’ll spend nearly five hours on the phone to claim her benefits every other week. So far, she’s spent well over a day on the phone.
“Probably at least two with the times that I’ve claimed,” she said.
But a number of bills have been proposed this session to address the issues facing Florida’s Unemployment system. Not only did a statewide investigation find that CONNECT was never properly tested or designed, the State’s benefit system is among the lowest in the country.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, has proposed one of the broadest pieces of legislation. It’s essentially an overhaul of the system.
“This bill really is the platinum addition,” Eskamani said. “It’s a holistic approach to pushing unemployment to the 21st Century.”
The bill, HB207, would create an ombudsman position within the Department of Economic Opportunity to oversee reemployment assistance, including more ways for applicants to get help by phone and standardized response times. It also changes a number of eligibility requirements and creates parameters for how to handle future States of Emergency. There’s also language to overhaul the CONNECT system and increase benefits from a max of $275 per week to $500 per week and increase the time someone can receive benefits from 12 weeks to 26 weeks.
A system lacking
Federal data shows Florida has one of the lowest benefit payouts in the country and is well below the national average. It also shows most states provide benefits for 26 weeks.
Some bills proposing changes to unemployment have come from Republicans as well. But those don’t go quite as far as Eskamani and other Democrats hope to.
Rep. Even Jenne, a leader in the Democratic Caucus said all change is welcome, so long as it actually serves Floridians.
“We will take a very critical eye to the bill to make sure these are changes that are actually going to help people,” Jenne said. “We are very optimistic and very open minded but we also know this process can take beautiful things and turn them into monsters.”
Worth the cost?
But the changes would come at a cost. Some estimates put overhauling unemployment and the CONNECT system at around $250 million.
“Every person has potential to be vulnerable. I think it’s pretty clear that the state of Florida is pretty good at taking your money but terrible at giving it back to you,” Eskamani said. “And this is an investment that would make sure that no matter where you are in the state of Florida if you become unemployed and you’ve been contributing to a trust fund, that you can actually get that money to be your insurance.”
And as someone going still waiting for their first benefits two months after losing their job, Jocelyn Smith said it’d be a good and overdue use of tax payer money.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” she said.
Still in the midst of the pandemic, she hopes to find new work soon. By the time legislation goes through it might be too late to help her, but she’s made peace with that.
“It’ll be a miracle if I ever get a cent,” Smith said. “Honestly. I figure I’m never gonna see anything. And I’m trying to find an opportunity. So, I’m just doing the best I can.”
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