For the week ending March 7, Florida received just 5,325 applications for unemployment benefits, or just more than 1,000 a day. On Monday alone, more than 21,000 claims flooded in. On Tuesday, the tally soared to 31,000, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
After his wife was laid off from her job as a dental hygienist, Chris Snyder jumped in to help her apply for unemployment benefits.
What he thought would be a straightforward process proved frustrating. The state’s unemployment system is overwhelmed amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Snyder, of West Palm Beach, estimates he spent four hours on Tuesday in fruitless attempts to submit a claim.
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He tried to fill out the state's online application 15 times or more, only to be kicked off the system in each instance, mission unaccomplished. He repeatedly called the state's 800 number, only to have the call end without speaking to anyone.
"If we're going through this, think about the thousands of other people who are going through this," Snyder said.
State officials freely acknowledge that the state's website is ill-equipped to handle an influx of unemployment applications.
"The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is currently experiencing higher than average wait times when contacting the Reemployment Assistance Program," the state's website says. "We apologize for the inconvenience."
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State officials blame the suddenness of the coronavirus crisis. With Florida unemployment plunging to record lows in recent months, state officials needed to handle only a trickle of claims.
For the week ending March 7, Florida received just 5,325 applications for unemployment benefits, or just more than 1,000 a day.
On Monday alone, more than 21,000 claims flooded in. On Tuesday, the day Chris Snyder was attempting to fill out a form online, the tally soared to 31,000, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
It’s unclear how requests like Snyder’s are being counted. If you can’t submit an application online and can’t reach anyone at the state, is the attempt officially a request for unemployment benefits?
In any case, the crush brings back memories of the bad old days of double-digit unemployment.
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"Funding for the administration of the Reemployment Assistance program is directly tied to a state’s unemployment rate," the agency said in a statement. "With historic lows, our team has been working with minimum staffing."
The stress on the system is giving Democrats, a distinct minority in Tallahassee, an I-told-you-so moment. State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, says Florida is home to "the country’s worst unemployment insurance system."
The maximum benefit of $275 a week is among the lowest in the nation, and even in good times it’s difficult for workers to win benefits, Rodriguez said.
"You have to run the gauntlet to be able to get any benefits," he said.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic threw the state’s economy into a tailspin this month, Rodriguez heard complaints from workers who said applying for an unemployment check was an hourslong ordeal.
The Department of Economic Opportunity said it plans to hire 100 workers and upgrade the state’s website. For now, the page is getting poor reviews.
"The website is really bad and antiquated," Snyder said.
The state ended old-fashioned unemployment offices back in the 1990s. These days, the only way to file for an unemployment check is through the state website.
In a crunch reminiscent of the Great Recession, Florida's fast-cratering job market is creating a double whammy for laid-off workers. For starters, they're out of work in labor market where hiring is rare.
Adding bureaucratic insult to that economic injury, they're finding it frustratingly difficult to file unemployment claims by phone or online.
Back in 2009, the state’s labor department, then known as the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, handled the influx of unemployment claims by bolstering its staff by 400 workers, extending its call center's hours and adding phone lines and a computer server. The state agency also hired temporary workers to help the jobless navigate the unemployment bureaucracy.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.