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Florida unemployment claims stalled by clogged websites

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Jacqueline Gonzalez considers herself one of the lucky ones. Weeks after being laid off from a South Florida sports bar that was shut down because of the coronavirus, the 32-year-old single mom was finally was able to complete an online unemployment application.

But even so, the out-of-work bartender has received no confirmation of how much of the maximum $275 per week in compensation she’ll receive, or when the checks will start arriving. And there is no one to ask. She’s called multiple times, but the call always goes unanswered.

“Every day, you’re trying to log in to see what your status is. Some days you can get in, and some days you don’t,” Gonzalez said, referring to the Department of Economic Opportunity's website. “It’s a waiting game.”

A U.S. congresswoman from central Florida is demanding an investigation. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat, asked the U.S. Department of Labor late Friday to look into Florida's unemployment compensation program, describing it as “deficient.”

The congresswoman said in a letter to the department's Inspector General that the program “has now collapsed at the precise time it is needed most, causing incalculable economic and emotional harm to Floridians whose lives have been upended by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that he’s added 2,000 state workers to try to sort through the growing numbers of unemployment claims. He said the department must verify the Social Security number, employer and other information for each person filing for unemployment.

The Department of Economic Opportunity also has increased it's computer system's capacity so that it can handle the approximately 120,000 simultaneous website users it has been seeing recently — about double the peak usage in recent weeks. Officials said the agency received 3.8 million calls last week, 50% more than all of last year.

“This is a shock like we’ve never seen before, so we’re shifting as many resources to this as we can," DeSantis said Friday at a news conference.

He said unemployment offices have received more than 640,000 claims since March 15, in addition to 12,000 paper applications that arrived in the mail through FedEx, which offered to print out and send applications for people.

Gonzalez and her 11-year-old daughter live with her mother, a school teacher, in Miami Lakes. Her mother teaches her students online, while Gonzalez's daughter attends a separate virtual school.

Gonzalez said she’s managing to get by using some savings to pay bills, but she's afraid those savings won't last long.

“Bills are racking up,” she said.

In St. Petersburg, physical therapist Tonya Olson, 51, is also feeling the pain.

As the coronavirus began to spread in the state in early March, she consulted with fellow therapists about whether to continue seeing patients in their homes. While some of her patients were still willing to seek treatment, she worried about putting them at risk with so little known about the virus.

“We’re not staying home because we’re lazy," she said. "We’re staying home so people don’t die. This is a very real thing. I’ve never been in a place where I could possibly not pay my own bills. It’s awful.”

Olson said she had tried — unsuccessfully — to file for unemployment since March 16, logging on to the website early in the morning and at various other times during the day with no luck. She finally succeeded on Saturday.

As a new small business owner, Olson said she doesn’t have a lot of savings. She’s put many of her bills on hold while waiting to get both her state unemployment check and the federal aid that has been approved by Congress and President Donald Trump.

“If I don’t get the money ... I will not be able to pay my rent in May,” she said. “I’ve never in my life not been able to pay rent. It’s humbling. It’s frightening.”

Michelle Chason, a self-employed energy healer in Tallahassee, has experienced the same frustrations.

The state's unemployment website "asks you to put your pin number in,” Chason said. “You make a new pin, then you go to log in and then it sends you right back to do it all over again. I now have my driver’s license totally memorized because of having to enter it so many times.”

Finally, on Thursday, she was able to use the agency’s new mobile site to start a claim.

Chason blames Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who as governor modified the unemployment system in a way that critics say makes it harder for Floridians to collect unemployment.

“I think it’s criminal,” Chason said. “To purposely set it up to make it difficult, where people will get frustrated and not file, is evil.”

Scott has dismissed the criticism, but DeSantis, also a Republican, has acknowledged that the system is broken and needs fixing. Even before the pandemic-induced crunch, he said, it took about three weeks from the time someone applied for benefits to receive a first check.

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This story has been edited to correct that Gonzalez's mother teaches her own students online while her daughter attends a separate virtual school.

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