In the wake of the coronavirus, Florida’s troubled unemployment office has been crippled by a barrage of applications that topped 317,000 applications in just the last 10 days.
Those problems did not come without warnings.
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Since the system was launched in 2013, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has repeatedly come under fire from state auditors who warned the system was plagued by glitches that tripped up applicants and operators. Last March, auditors issued a warning about a problem that seems particularly important now: An error message prevented applicants from filing claims for disaster assistance, like pandemics.
“They've known about it for a long time and haven't cared,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “There seems to always be in our state an emphasis on folks who have wealth, more than folks who don't. And this is like quite a blunt example of that during a desperate time of need.”
After a drop in hotel bookings around Orlando earlier this month, Eskamani said she warned the governor’s office that the state was going to get slammed with applications. By the third week in March, the office had received more than 74,000 in just one week.
“People cannot access the website, let alone a person on the phone to help,” she said. “When they try to call customer service for assistance, there's no one on the other end of the line. It's really bringing folks to tears, especially as they approach due dates for monthly payments and rents.”
Problems in the nearly $78 million system were flagged from the start. The agency chief told legislators in 2014 that 100 problems were immediately identified just after it was launched, according to a 2015 audit. The state hired a tech firm to help deal with the problems and more than 200 additional employees. Over the next eight months, more than 10,000 data fixes were made.
Audits in 2017 and 2019 continued to find technical errors that derailed claims.
The system lacked adequate procedures to ensure documents were received by deadlines. It failed to accurately index documents included in applications to ensure they were attached to the correct application. Users encountered errors that prevented them from entering information. The system itself generated dates that could interfere with applications.
The agency now says help is on the way.
In an email this week, spokeswoman Tiffany Vause said Virginia-based Faneuil Inc., a customer service center, had been hired to bring in up to 250 workers to staff call centers. The workers will specifically address problems connected to personal identification numbers, she said, that have clogged the system. On Facebook and Twitter, applicants have complained repeatedly that the system provides no way to update PINs if they can’t remember them.
Up to 50 workers could be staffing phones at the state’s call center by the end of the week, Vause said.
The agency itself also plans to hire 50 new workers this week, she said, and is continuing to interview candidates. The agency is also looking to hire a tech company to build an application system for mobile devices, she said, and is expanding the existing system to process more applications.
If fixes don’t come soon, Eskamani worries the system will be overwhelmed again by a new wave of applicants trying to access federal benefits. The benefits will extend Florida’s payment period, capped at 12 weeks and among the shortest in the nation, by 13 weeks. Weekly payments now set at $275 will increase by $600.
“There's a much larger population of folks who still can't get on the website and are now going to be eligible under the federal plan,” she said. “So we need to get this website up and working because this is how folks are going to access their benefits.”