JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – More than 74,000 Floridians applied for unemployment benefits last week, a tenfold increase from the previous week, as the spread of the novel coronavirus shut down the state’s theme parks and visitors stayed away from its hotels and airports, officials said Thursday.
The extraordinary jump in unemployment benefits applications came the same week that the largest theme park resorts in Florida -- Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa -- closed their gates and emptied their hotels, cruise lines halted trips and Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended on-premise food and alcohol consumption at Florida restaurants and bars.
Disney World and Universal Orlando promised to pay workers during the two weeks they planned to be closed, but secondary businesses such as nearby hotels and restaurants, event planners and caterers were hurt by the closures.
Across the U.S., nearly 3.3 million workers applied for jobless benefits last week.
Filing for benefits the next challenge
With a rush of applicants for unemployment, many are finding the process is difficult. People who were recently laid off said they simply can’t get an operator on the line and their emails are not being returned when they need assistance the most.
When Sue Ashton and a dozen of her coworkers were let go Monday morning, the first place she turned to was Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity. She yet to reach a single soul after dialing them more than 60 times.
”I’m infuriated because this is no way to take care of your people, the working people," Ashton said. “We’re out there busting your butt every day and all the sudden -- boom -- we’re out of work and we’re up in the air. That is just unfair.”
Ashton says her calls are dropped almost as soon as she dials the number, she’s never reached a human being.. and her emails aren’t being returned. And she’s not the only one. Frustrated applicants have flooded our newsroom phones and reached out on social media.
State officials say the state department of Economic Opportunity is scrambling to boost its staff and technology to keep up with the historic demand, including an eightfold jump in phone calls.
According to DeSantis, the agency went from 28,000 calls the first week of March to 224,000 calls the very next week.
A growing issue appears to be with users who’ve received unemployment before. When they attempt to log in, the system recognizes them but then asks them to reset their PIN via phone.
That is precisely what Susan Ashton says she’s been trying to do all week.
”It should definitely be a top priority because we are doing what we were supposed to do. Because of the situation, they’ve promised help," Ashton said. ”I hope the governor and Sen. Rick Scott is hearing the people’s plea, and I’m sure I’m not the only one."
While Floridians wait for the state’s unemployment experts to get their up and operating. State leaders said you should keep trying to reach them, by phone and by email. When you finally reach someone, make sure you have your Social Security number, driver’s license or state ID, your past 18 months of employment, including the name of your employer and reason for separation and your earnings and dates of employment.
DeSantis has eased up on some of the requirements, issuing an executive order this week that eliminates the need for applicants to apply to five jobs a week to receive benefits.
Florida’s unemployment rate was 2.8% in January. Earlier this week, DeSantis said he was anticipating not only economic consequences from job losses but also other problems such as drug abuse and domestic violence.
“We had such an embarrassment of riches with our unemployment rate,” DeSantis said. “What a different world it was where the agency was overstaffed just a few weeks ago probably from what the claims were. Now we are in a different situation.”
Other states with smaller populations -- Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio -- had double the number of applicants for unemployment benefits as Florida, a state criticized by lawmakers and advocates for offering paltry benefits with burdensome conditions. Florida pays a maximum of $275 a week for 12 weeks.
Florida had almost 1.3 million leisure and hospitality jobs in January, and Orlando was the most visited destination in the U.S. with 75 million visitors in 2018. Industry experts expect that sector to be decimated by the coronavirus-related closures. The U.S. Travel Association earlier this week estimated that 5.9 million jobs would be lost by the end of April due to declining travel.