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 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.
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.”
The state's Department of Economic Opportunity has come under heavy criticism as it found itself unprepared for the crisis.
On Sunday alone, the agency received more than 21,000, according to statistics compiled by the agency's spokeswoman, Tiffany Vause.
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.
Vause said 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.