They helped people process their unemployment benefits, but now they are out of work.
Earlier in the pandemic, Florida spent over $100 million to hire call center workers, but the state is now scaling back on these contracts.
The Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) called the pandemic an “unprecedented stress test” for the state’s unemployment agency.
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According to a report released in February, Florida received more claims in nine months during 2020 than it had in the previous eight years combined.
It’s stress that has carried over to people battling for their benefits.
“I can’t tell you how many phone calls I made, how many chats for two hours and then to be cut off at the end with no resolution,” Paul Gleason said.
Gleason is one of many people who have reached out to NBC 6 Responds trying to resolve an issue with the DEO.
He told NBC 6 his benefits have been on hold for six months.
The DEO told NBC 6 Responds they are taking another look at Gleason’s case.
But as people like Gleason wait for help, the agency has cut ties with most third-party contractors.
At the height of the pandemic, the DEO contracted with three third-party vendors to help process unemployment claims.
The contracts totaled more than $110 million, according to state records.
But with a decrease in call volume, the department told NBC 6 it’s ending most of these contracts.
“Economic factors, such as the state’s low unemployment rate of 4.8 percent and twelve consecutive months of job growth, show that Floridians are returning to work. As such, the Department has phased out all third-party contractors that previously provided call center support, except for Lighthouse,” said a spokesperson for the DEO.
Recently, they let go of more than 1,000 call center workers from Telaforce, a Titan Technologies Company.
The state’s contract with Titan was set to end June 30, but the DEO representative told us the “Department was not fully satisfied with the work the company was providing and so, because of performance issues, the Department has chosen to end this contract early.”
A Titan representative did not directly answer our questions about what the DEO called “performance issues.” But the company provided the following statement regarding the ending of the contract: “Titan Technologies is proud to have served the citizens of Florida during the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic. The service provided by our agents has helped millions of Florida residents process their reemployment claims. Over the past 15 months, call volumes have continued to drop and FL DEO has developed a plan to shift the call center operations from contractor to Government staff. While we cannot continue to support our agents on this contract, we are very proud of the services we provided and look forward to supporting the State of Florida and FL DEO in the future.”
NBC 6 asked the DEO if they plan to hire more workers to fill the void left by the ending of Titan’s contract. In a statement, a spokesperson told us of the $92.4 million approved in the latest state budget to help modernize the unemployment system, they will use part of the money to hire 435 additional staff members “to assist with call center support and processing claims.”
The statement went on to say the department has “over 1,300 Reemployment Assistance staff working to make sure all eligible claimants are paid the benefits they are owed as quickly as possible. Utilizing internal DEO employees, instead of contracted call center staff, will allow these employees to better assist claimants with any issues,” adding, “The Department previously planned to eventually phase out all third-party contracted staff as call volume continued to decrease due to the economic turnaround post-pandemic…”