Furloughed Jacksonville man frustrated by overwhelmed Florida unemployment system

Last week, 3.8 million calls were made to the department, 50% more than all of last year.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19, Kevin Briscoes’ job at a Jacksonville retail store moved from having him come in, to only fulfilling mail orders.

On March 29, they gave him notice that he was being furloughed and would likely not return to work until at least May 3.

“It was a little jarring,” Briscoe said. “There are some concerns with paying bills and making ends meet. My wife has a decent job with UF health systems, but even with that she still needs my assistance.”

That’s the scary part. But Briscoe said the frustrating part of this process has been filing for unemployment benefits.

“I log onto the site try to file a claim and it was this continuous loop from the sign-in page where you try to add all your demographic information to a warning about fraud. You click and acknowledge that you read, understand that and it takes your right back to the sign-in,” he said. “Then you click the sign-in and it takes you back to the fraud page. And it was just that continual loop. I never got any farther than that.”

Briscoe said he started trying to get on the website at odd hours when other people might not be on.

“Like three in the morning,” Briscoe said. “I got up the other day at 7:30 to call them and I called the number that they had there, that they have been advertising all over the place and it simply rings, picks up, hangs up … like what’s the deal with that?”

“For people that are sitting on this end, that are looking for these benefits to get them through a tough time, this is a scary moment for a lot of people,” he added.

In the last three weeks, Florida has received more than 400,000 applications for re-employment assistance benefits. The number of people who have applied for benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic has already surpassed the number of people who applied for re-employment benefits in all of 2019.

The online system being used to process the state’s unemployment claims was overwhelmed, according to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and the website was having trouble processing the surge of unemployment claims people are trying to submit.

DeSantis spent the first part of his address on Monday discussing how the state is working to process more applications.

DeSantis said the state has hired 500 additional workers who stared taking calls and added 72 servers to their online application system, which now allows 120,000 people to apply on the website at once.

DeSantis said the state identified more than 2,000 state workers who will help the Department of Economic Opportunity process unemployment compensation claims. He said the state is in the process of setting up a virtual desktop that would allow state employees to remotely take phone calls and do data entry with the application system.

DeSantis said he also instructed the DEO to create paper applications and said the state is working on ways to get printed copies to people who don’t have access to printers.

“At the end of the day, what I’ve told all these folks is this, you were in an unprecedented situation. You look at any other economic dip that we’ve had. Some of those are somewhat sudden, but nothing is even close to a sudden is this,” DeSantis said.

The issues with the state’s online application system are not new. In March 2019, the state released an audit on the Connect system used to process re-employment assistance claims and benefits.

Auditor General Sherill Norman pointed out 630 outstanding defect tickets related to technical system errors and other system defects.

The inspector wrote that, "While the Department initiated defect tickets to record technical system errors and other RA System defects, the Department did not have procedures or a process in place to identify and analyze data related to the technical system errors and other system defects to gain an understanding of error frequency, error spike rates, shared commonalities among system errors, potential aggregate criticality, or total number of users affected.”

The report also noted inspectors pointed out the same issues in 2017 audit of the system.

On Monday, DeSantis said the issues with the website are not necessarily the same issue preventing people from submitting their applications.

“I mean, there’s problems with how this design has been pointed out. But that’s not really the problem that we face, we just face the capacity issue,” he said.

After a week of trying to submit online, Briscoe sent a paper application off in the mail Sunday.

“I feel like I already wasted a week with the online process that didn’t work and now I am going to waste an extended period of time to get this paper processed. It’s a maddening, maddening situation,” he said. “For people that are sitting on this end, that are looking for these benefits to get them through a tough time, this is a scary moment for a lot of people.”

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