Florida jobless claims rise as does anger among unemployed

TALLAHASSEE -AP- Unemployment claims in Florida continued surging Thursday — as did frustrations among the newly jobless who have struggled for weeks to file for financial relief amidst the coronavirus outbreak that has crippled the state’s economy and sidelined much of its workforce.

The director of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity took the unusual step Thursday of publicly apologizing for his agency’s failures and for the anguish it has wrought on thousands of Floridians unable to file for unemployment benefits.

“From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” the agency’s executive director, Ken Lawson, said during a teleconference. “There’s a full commitment from me, personally and professionally, to get you the resources you need from my department.”TOP ARTICLES  COVID-19 social distancing measures impact censusefforts. Here’s how.

The Tampa Bay Times quoted Lawson as saying his office has received 1.5 million calls in the past week. A significant number has been over personal identification numbers needed to access the state’s website.

The number of people in Florida filing for unemployment benefits last week tripled from the previous week as the spread of the coronavirus forced more counties and cities to issue stay-at-home orders. The Department of Labor reported Thursday that 227,000 Floridians initiated unemployment claims last week, up from 74,313 the previous week.

Florida’s unemployment rate was 2.8%, and 9 million Floridians were in the workforce in February, the last month before the coronavirus started spreading in Florida.

But those numbers are sure to change.

As of Thursday morning, there were more than 7,700 reported infections among Florida residents, with deaths now rising above 100.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a stay-at-home order to take effect statewide to help contain the spread of infections.

Many, like Jay Mendez, have had no choice since getting laid off from an accounting firm more than three weeks ago.

These days, he wakes to an alarm every morning reminding him to call the unemployment office in his daily struggle to finalize his unemployment claim.

“There’s no getting through, and to this day I still haven’t gotten through,” he said. Now without work, he said, “I have nothing else to do. I have days where I’ve logged in a hundred calls.”

He had the money to cover this month’s $1,450 rent for his one-bedroom apartment, but he said not much else is left.

“No one wants to use their savings for these things,” said Mendez 32, who also lost his part-time job at a restaurant. “I’m obviously worried about how I’m going to pay my rent and my bills.”

This week alone, the agency expects to receive about 56,000 claims.

The spike in applicants overwhelmed the state’s computer and phone systems, with many seeking help left hanging on calls or unable to complete their applications.

The agency’s spokeswoman, Tiffany Vause, said earlier this week that her department is getting help from the U.S. Department of Labor to take advantage of the coronavirus aid package signed days ago by President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the department has contracted with a customer care and technical support company that would add 250 more people to staff its call center.

Lisa Wright, a 56-year-old newly unemployed software development consultant from Fort Lauderdale, vented her frustrations on Twitter.

She hasn’t been unable to file her unemployment claim, she said, because she’s been locked out of the state’s website and can’t reach anyone for help.

“This should be so simple,” she said. Phone lines have mostly been busy. When she is lucky enough to get through, the call eventually gets disconnected without getting the help she needs, she said.

She’s deferred car and mortgage payments to conserve cash. She even charged her healthcare premium on her credit card. “I’m trying to conserve my cash, because I don’t know how long this is going to be,” she said.

“No one can get the benefits if we can’t get through,” she said.


Associated Press writer reporter Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.