Lost your job due to the pandemic? Look on the bright side. An economic cushion exists to break your financial free fall–unemployment benefits. Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work anyway. While millions of Americans aren’t working, neither is the unemployment system.
In actuality, there’s not just one unemployment program. Oh, no. The U.S. boasts 53 different unemployment systems–one for each state plus one each for Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Despite this large number of setups to assist workers (er, former workers) when they most need financial assistance, a vast amount of the unemployed are outside the economic safety net these programs are supposed to provide.
Just how many people are we talking about? Well, first we need to determine who’s unemployed. This blog is too short to identify all of them because official U.S. statistics reveal that 26.5 million people have submitted applications for unemployment benefits since mid-March. So much for all those jobs gained during the recent long employment boom. Boom has turned to bust thanks to the coronavirus.
But wait. That’s merely the number of individuals who have successfully been able to submit an unemployment application. A survey by the Economic Policy Institute (“EPI”) indicates another 8.9 to 13.9 million people have not been able to get applications submitted. Per EPI, for every 10 people who were able to file an unemployment claim, 3 or 4 more people could not register. Why? Unemployment compensation system websites have been down and phone lines have clogged by hordes of the unemployed seeking the assistance which had been represented was going to be available to them.
Things are particularly dark in the Sunshine State of Florida. The web-based application process apparently routinely kicks applicants out of the system when they hit the submit button. Nothing like spending a chunk of time completing an application merely to have it go “Poof!” and vanish into thin air when you’re finished. Other applicants have reportedly waited for “hours” on the phone only to be summarily disconnected. OK, so those who are unemployed may have time to wait for hours on the phone since they have no job to go to, but is that really how they deserve to be treated? Talk about kicking someone when they are down–or in this case hanging up on them.
Florida’s system was overwhelmed with the volume of users generated by the fallout from the pandemic. According to the State of Florida, it had received over 824,000 claims as of Tuesday. I’m no economic genius, but I rather suspect that figure will continue to rise on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of this week.
Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity (“DEO”) is in charge of the debacle with the opportunity it is providing being a lost one to help those in need in a timely fashion. I’m not sure the Department’s name really fits its purpose. If you ask me (which they clearly didn’t), I’d suggest the name Department of Unemployment Help, or “DUH.” To me, that acronmyn is apropos to the State’s handling of the unemployment claim tsunami.
So what’s a state to do when it is going under from a deluge of claims its system can’t handle? Hmm. Maybe it should increase the system’s capacity to allow filing of even more claims it can’t handle. Sound ridiculous? Well, that’s exactly what happened in Florida. The State acted “quickly” (quickly being a relative term when it’s the government doing the acting) to add 77 more computer servers to its CONNECT website that unemployed workers hadn’t been able to connect to. Brilliant!
Despite these technical adjustments, the CONNECT system is still a mess. It was offline all weekend for maintenance, although I’m not sure that anyone could tell the difference. Even though it was back up on Monday, the system was reportedly functioning erratically and generating repeated error messages. BLERK!
But the successful submission of a claim isn’t the end goal for an individual who has lost his job. He wants the claim to be approved and then, the ultimate goal, PAID. How’s that working out in Florida? I’d give it an “F,” and the “F” does NOT stand for Florida. It stands for “FAILURE.”
Why give the Sunshine State an “F?” Well, Florida has the worst rate in the country for processing submitted claims. An April 25th USA Today report stated that of the Floridians who had managed to file claims since mid-March 7 of 8 were still waiting to have them processed. In comparison, according to the Associated Press, California and Texas have 2/3 of their claims backlogged and New York only had about 30% of its claims still waiting.
How does the State of Florida think its going to resolve this backlog of claims? Perhaps they should call in the cavalry. While the cavalry has not been summoned, backup has indeed been summoned. The State has shifted 2,200 government employees from other departments on a temporary basis to lend a helping hand. Who knew that working in a state engineering job, for example, might one day require you to process unemployment claims?
So there’s more manpower available to deal with the claims, but do these shifted workers have any clue as to what they are doing? Some claimants answer this question with a resounding, “NO!” A USA Today story related how one claimant called for assistance last week but the person answering said it was his first day and couldn’t answer the questions posed. Well, that’s helpful. Meanwhile, work isn’t getting done back at the department from where this clueless worker was shifted.
Even when claims are successfully submitted and then processed, claimants are not always getting the desired outcome. Approval of a claim doesn’t mean instant money in one’s pocket. As of March 23rd, only one out of 5 people in Florida who had submitted a claim had received their payment. If this were baseball, that would be a pathetic .200 batting average. That percentage won’t cut it on the baseball diamond or in the world of unemployment compensation either.
Even worse, some claimants are being rejected when they are clearly eligible. An Associated Press report tells of a bartender who, after waiting for a month, was notified she was ineligible for assistance because she had failed to look for another job. This ruling on her claim was issued despite a “large disclaimer” on the website that this job-hunting requirement had been waived due to the pandemic. Hey, no bars are open since there’s a pandemic, so where’s she going to look for work anyway? DUH! (See, I told you the acronym was appropriate.)
So the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.” But more important for Florida today is the corollary–if it is broke, FIX IT. The state unemployment system is woefully inadequate and needs to be fixed. The system isn’t working, and it isn’t rendering assistance to people who aren’t working and who are depending on this system to feed themselves and their families during a personal economic crisis. The unemployment system in Florida, or in any other state, not working during the pandemic is simply unacceptable. Let’s get the unemployment system as well as those who are unemployed due to the pandemic back to work!
Have you or anyone you know lost their job due to the pandemic? What’s the point of having an unemployment system in place if it won’t work when it is needed most? Is a month to process an unemployment claim an acceptable length of time when a former worker has no income?