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Unemployment wait is long one

By Staff | May 1, 2020

Pink Shell Resort

For Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s unemployment assistance program is a problem he considers a top priority as hundreds of thousands of Floridians continue to wait on checks to arrive and for their re-employment assistance applications to be processed.

For folks like, unemployed Pink Shell Resort server Laura Oliver, the wait for unemployment assistance can’t end quick enough. As of April 26, she had been waiting for more than a month to receive unemployment assistance.

“It’s been horrible,” Oliver said. Oliver, who worked at Jack’s Restaurant and Bongo’s at the Pink Shell Resort for about a year, said she applied for unemployment benefits on March 22 and so far has received word that her claim has been processed but no money has yet arrived. “Nothing has been updated (on her claim online) this whole time.”

According to figures provided by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Oliver is one of more than 1.8 million Florida residents who have submitted re-employment assistance claims between March 15 and April 26. Of those, more than 800,000 have been confirmed as “unique claims.” The state has processed 652,296 claims as of April 26. Of those claims, 47% (386,926) have been paid. Those 386,926 have thus far been paid a total of $497,756,788.

In all of last year, there were approximately 300,000 claimants for unemployment insurancee, DeSantis said.

DeSantis blames the backlog on claims on a computer software program that was designed to process the state’s unemployment assistance at a cost of more than $70 million during the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott.

“It has a lot of architectural problems (the unemployment assistance program), and quite frankly a capacity issue,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Tampa on April 27. DeSantis said approximately 300,000 claims and payments were processed over the weekend. “So that is going to be hitting people’s bank accounts today and tomorrow. Some of them are debit cards.”

Those figures have not alleviated the stress that people like Oliver, who has waited more than a month to receive funds from the state since going unemployed from her job as a server in March. Oliver was one of more than 200 employees at the Pink Shell Resort whose jobs came to a halt as the state put restrictions on restaurants, the town and county closed its beaches, the town closed down commercial lodging facilities and the hospitality industry suffered as the coronavirus pandemic hit the state.

Oliver, who grew up in nearby Naples, lives in a house with her husband in Fort Myers. Her husband is still working. “It is very difficult,” Oliver said about their current situation. “It takes both of our incomes to pay for everything.”

She noted that the state’s re-employment website was shut down over the weekend. DeSantis said that was done purposely to speed up the processing of claims.

“The website is a nightmare,” Oliver said. “It takes 15 minutes to go to the next page and closes out.” The Fort Myers resident said she was once on the phone for 12 hours waiting to speak to somebody. “You can’t speak to anyone and can’t find out anything. It’s horrible.”

DeSantis has been up front in discussing the system’s challenges. A few weeks ago, the system was crashing, he said. “It is leaps and bounds where they were three or four weeks ago,” DeSantis said. “It was processing, like 1,500 payments a day. Well, when you have hundreds of thousands of people that aint’ going to cut it.”

DeSantis said some of the delays around the system involve the way it was set up. It is not just a simple matter of people applying for benefits, but a complicated program involving dozens of regulations which ask applicants a long list of questions.

DeSantis noted that he has waived the standard waiting period which would have built in weeks of waiting time to begin with for applicants. Even before the unemployment crisis, there was a long waiting period for the unemployed to receive assistance.

DeSantis also waived the need for the unemployed to keep re-certifying for benefits though Oliver said the system is still asking her to re-certify. The phone system also reminds applicants to keep re-certifying their claim each week, Oliver said.

There have also been reports that the system has rejected tens of thousands of claims during the pandemic. DeSantis said there is a percentage of people who have applied who are not eligible.

Currently, Oliver said that the website shows her claim as “pending” but she has received no update by letter or email.

“The agency said this was a good system a month ago. Obviously, that was not accurate,” DeSantis said. “I’ve talked with these engineers and you would not build a system with in mind that the economy would basically just stop voluntarily,” he said.

“Right now, my issue is I am not going to cry over the spilled milk right now because my number one concern outside of health is to get the checks out so we are putting 100% of the effort on this as we do the checks.

“We’ve got more to do,” DeSantis said.

“The struggle is very real,” Oliver said. “It’s really scary. We sit here and do nothing.”