By: Anne Geggis
The state’s overwhelmed unemployment claims website has lit up Rep. Dan Daley’s phone with constituents’ desperate stories, prompting the Tamarac Democrat to demand on Tuesday that at least 2,000 more state employees be dedicated to getting the claims backlog cleared.
Daley’s letter rips the Department of Economic Opportunity’s response to the needs of an estimated 400,000 Floridians who were thrown out of work when all nonessential businesses were closed down to stop the transmission of the COVID-19.
There is no known cure for the potentially fatal virus that’s caused a worldwide pandemic, and the only way to stop its spread is to avoid those infected. And that has been a body blow to the state’s tourism-dependent economy.
“In the people’s most trying time, their state continues to fail them,” Daley wrote to the department’s director, Ken Lawson. Daley noted that none of the 160 constituents that he referred to the department’s website have yet to hear anything from the state’s lifeline for the unemployed. “… A ‘pending status’ status does not put food on the table,” he concluded.
The bottleneck of website traffic prompted the state to pledge that more personnel would be handling unemployment claims processing, and new claimants were urged to fill out paper forms to speed up the process. The Department of Economic Opportunity’s website acknowledges that it is experiencing higher-than-average wait times and thanks people for their patience.
Daley said that his constituent “Louis” has been trying every day to get some relief after being thrown out of work but to no avail.
“I had to tell him today that I continue to follow up with the (unemployment) agency, but that’s the most I can do,” Daley said. “It’s heart-wrenching to tell someone who is frustrated, out of work and running out of money to put food on the table, that I couldn’t do more.”
Daley said it is unacceptable that residents continue to wait.
Carole Rene, 66, of Tamarac, is still waiting. She applied for benefits weeks ago when her job as a mammography technician ended. It’s impossible to stay 6 feet away from patients, as social distance guidelines require to prevent the transmission of coronavirus, she said.
This Friday will mark the third week since she was finally able to register after spending three hours each day, for four days trying to get through the website prompts. The site kept kicking her off, sending her back to the first screen, to try logging in again and answering the same questions over and over. The first hour had her feeling the frustration.
“I don’t know when I’m going back to work. I don’t know how long they are going to keep asking questions,” Rene said. “In the meantime, we’re just wasting time here and no money to take care of ourselves.”
Daley also said that it’s “disturbing” that only 1,000 out of 38,000 small businesses that applied have been approved for the Emergency Bridge Loan. It’s part of the federal relief designed to keep business from having to close permanently.
“Yet, the Department put out a press release hailing the program as a success,” he wrote to the state unemployment agency.
The state needs to act, and fast, Daley said. Like the virus, the economic toll will continue to mount as regular paychecks are out of reach for more people.
“The department’s inability to function has caused a dire situation, and it will only get worse as the days tick by, and more and more residents seek relief,” Daley said.
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- Anne Geggis has been a newspaper reporter for 30 years, most recently at the Sun Sentinel. She graduated from St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., with a double major in journalism and sociology.
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