Florida drowning in jobless claims
By SCOTT ANDRON
Floridians who want state unemployment benefits may need to brush up on their computer skills. That’s because there’s no way to sign up in person, and those who apply by phone can expect either busy signals or waits of up to 90 minutes to speak with someone.
“I’ve called them on that line, and it’s been busy for hours on end,” said Marta Gonzalez, a Miami resident who wants to know why she hasn’t received any payments yet.
As the ranks of Florida’s unemployed grow, the state labor department is finding itself deluged with applications for compensation, which maxes out at $275 per week.
In December alone, the department handled more than 157,000 applications, or almost triple the number from the same month in 2007. For all of 2008, the department handled 1.3 million applications, or almost twice as many as the previous year.
And the problem continues to get worse. Last week alone the state handled 87,000 claims, or more than four times as many as in the same week of last year.
The spike in benefit applications is tied to Florida’s rising unemployment rate: 7.3 percent in November, up from 4.8 percent the previous year. December unemployment numbers are scheduled to be released today.
The federal government has extended the maximum time people can collect benefits from 26 weeks to 59 weeks in Florida. But this has added to the state’s workload as thousands of people whose benefits had expired reapply.
That translates into frustration for many applicants who don’t apply online and face busy signals or long waits to talk to someone on the phone.
“You know, I might be unemployed, but I have better things to do,” Gonzalez said.
She said she has tried e-mailing the state about the status of her claim, but received no response. Then she wrote to the governor’s office, and got no response there either.
Many frustrated applicants visit local unemployment offices only to find that claims are no longer taken in person.
In general, workers at the local offices don’t even have access to the state computer system that carries the unemployment claims.
For example, Broward’s unemployment agency, Workforce One, has one person in its Hollywood office who can look up the status of benefit applications. He can’t change the applications, but the line to see him has snaked around the office anyway.
The state says it has been doing its best to keep up.
“We’ve been working very hard, and we’ve made numerous enhancements to the system, and we’re looking at numerous other ways to help the customer get access to the system,” said Robby Cunningham, a spokesman for the state labor department whose official name is the Agency for Workforce Innovation. The agency has added 325 workers to its unemployment compensation division during the past 18 months, bringing total staff to 900, Cunningham said. An additional 81 employees will join the division in February. The positions are at a call center in Orlando or at agency headquarters in Tallahassee.
The agency also has added 345 telephone lines to its phone system for a total of 1,012 lines, Cunningham said.
And in July, the agency extended the hours in which applicants can file for or verify unemployment compensation information by phone.
Hours are now 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.