Since the start of the pandemic, NBC 6 Responds has reported on the challenges many people have faced in trying to receive their unemployment benefits.
Our team received complaints about a variety of issues, from “error messages” to “glitches” preventing many from applying for benefits on the state’s online unemployment portal, CONNECT.
Over the course of the pandemic, the state spent roughly $39 million dollars to update the system. But some say more needs to be done.
A year into the pandemic, NBC 6 Responds continues to hear from people with unemployment issues.
South Florida resident Judith Phillpotts is among them.
“It is very important, because I am a single paycheck and I have bills to pay,” Phillpotts said when asked about the benefits she was waiting on.
Phillpotts said she called NBC 6 Responds when her unemployment benefits suddenly stopped being processed at the end of December.
She told us she is still furloughed from her job in the travel industry, but her unemployment claim was halted due to a “Return to Work” error on her account.
“It seems to be a simple process, but for some reason it is a difficult thing on their side,” Phillpotts said.
She said she spent weeks trying to fix the issue on the CONNECT portal and over the phone with the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).
It’s the latest in a series of problems unemployed people have called NBC 6 Responds to report for months, despite the number of unemployment claims steadily decreasing in the state, according to federal data.
FLORIDA VERSUS OTHER STATES
“The system was designed to be inaccessible and to not work ,and that is going to continue to happen until they address some of those deeper issues,” said Alexa Tapia from the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
Tapia is NELP’s unemployment insurance campaign coordinator.
She pointed out a stark contrast between Florida’s CONNECT system and that of states like Massachusetts, which uses a similar online portal built by the same contractor.
“When we look at that model state, we typically point to Massachusetts, so Florida would have been uniquely positioned to succeed,” Tapia said.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Massachusetts paid claimants at a much faster rate in the months following the pandemic.
In June, people applying for unemployment in that state received their first payment within 21 days 77% the time. In Florida, claimants were paid within 21 days 22% of the time.
“What they put into their system, how they have shaved it down, and shaved back benefits to make it harder to access,” Tapia said.
It’s a comparison the DEO recently addressed in an analysis of the state’s unemployment system. The report pointed out Florida had the highest percentage increase of new claims with more than double the number than Massachusetts.
PUSH TO REFORM
DEO Executive Director Dane Eagle met with lawmakers last week proposing changes he said are needed to improve the CONNECT portal, including a new cloud-based system.
“Moving the system into the cloud should have been step one, and of course looking at the fact of how low our benefits are,” State Rep. Anna Eskamani said.
Eskamani introduced a bill meant to reform the state’s unemployment system. If passed, it would bump the maximum weekly benefit amount to $500 and would require the DEO to notify a claimant about eligibility within three weeks.
“The fact that Floridians waited months to get an answer, any response from DEO, is unacceptable,” Eskamani said.
As for Judith Phillpotts, she told NBC 6 she just wants a system that works.
“For the system to be more people friendly and for access to someone that can assist you in solving their problems,” Phillpotts said.
NBC 6 Responds reached out to the DEO about Phillpotts’ case, and within days, she started to receive her benefits.
We have repeatedly requested an on-camera interview with the Executive Director of the DEO about the issues people are still facing and potential changes to the system, but we were told Director Eagle is unavailable due to scheduling conflicts and the legislative session.