Florida Judge Hears Dispute Over Jobless Claims System

Witnesses testified during a remote hearing that Florida’s unemployment claims system is plagued by website crashes, confusing instructions and wrongly denied claims.

Police officers monitor boardwalk in Hollywood, Fla., amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 13. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — Unemployed Floridians implored a circuit judge to order a fix for the state’s broken unemployment assistance system during an hours-long emergency injunction hearing Tuesday.

Tallahassee attorneys Marie Maddox and Gautier Kitchen, representing hundreds of claimants, brought the class action earlier this month to force Florida Department of Economic Opportunity officials to fix its faulty unemployment benefit website and pay all outstanding jobless claims within 48 hours.

“They are literally in limbo,” Maddox said of thousands of Floridians who have yet to see an unemployment benefits check since the Covid-19 pandemic decimated jobs in the state.

Florida has record unemployment, according to a DEO report released last week, with 1.2 million people losing jobs in March and April.

The Sunshine State’s unemployment system has struggled to meet the demand as thousands of people a day file claims, leading to nearly constant crashes of the system’s website. By mid-April, the agency had only processed 4% of claims, sparking outrage around the state.

In response, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis removed the head of the DEO, Ken Lawson, from overseeing the system and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into extra servers and call center employees.

The agency has now processed more than 85% of claims, but many unemployed Floridians have not yet received a check. Others say they were wrongly deemed ineligible for benefits.

“I have received zero dollars,” Jeffrey Donnelly, who worked for a mobile bartending company until mid-March, told Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper on Tuesday. “I have been made to put in five applications into the DEO. I have called over 200 times over the last 45 days. The process is constant confusion.”

Derek Bailey, who lost his job at an online travel agency in March, said he could not successfully file a claim until a week ago.

“It was a waste of time,” he said about applying online. “I was staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning to access the site when there would be less traffic.”

Lizette Camargo, a real estate agent from South Florida, experienced similar issues when she became unemployed on March 25.

“The page was down all the time and there was no answer on the phones,” Camargo said. “I tried to send emails and nothing happened. I had to do the application over and over and over.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, other witnesses echoed the same concerns: website crashes, confusing instructions from state call center employees and wrongly denied claims.

Philip Reese, who used to work for a renewable energy company in St. Petersburg, said the agency inaccurately denied him for not having any income for the last six months despite years of work history.

“I’ve been trying to appeal it ever since, but the website crashes every day,” he said.

Lollie Marcelin, a Seminole County event planner, said she had to instruct one of the state’s call center employees on how to navigate the site to look for her “lost” claim.

“He felt so frustrated, because he had this job, but he couldn’t help anyone,” she said.

Reginald Ellison, one of those call center employees hired by the DEO, confirmed the challenges experienced by claimants.

“Most of the time, there was nothing I could do,” Ellison said.

Most mornings, the system crashed for an hour or more as calls flooded in, he said.

“We were forbidden to tell callers there was a glitch,” Ellison said. 

Earlier this month, the governor directed the state’s inspector general to investigate the faulty website, which he called “convoluted” and “a clunker.”

The state contracted with Deloitte Consulting to create the site, which debuted in 2013 under then-Governor Rick Scott, now the state’s junior U.S. senator.

Audits in recent years have revealed systematic problems with the site.

During questioning, Damon Steffens, the DEO’s chief financial officer, admitted the website suffered numerous difficulties as unemployment claims reached record levels. The agency’s servers originally could only handle about 5,000 users at one time, but it has acted quickly to address those issues amid an unprecedented crisis, he said.

“I think with processing over a million claims, while not perfect, this system works well,” Steffens said. “I don’t know of anything we could be doing that we’re not doing now.”

Interruptions plagued the court proceedings, held remotely via Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic, including an outburst by plaintiff Sandra Carbone.

“We need to be paid,” Carbone shouted at the judge, who removed her from the virtual hearing.

Carbone returned during a break and complained again, prompting other attendees to shout her down.

Later, hackers intruded on the hearing and hurled insults at the judge.

Earlier this month, another Tallahassee judge dismissed a similar case filed by Maddox. In a mandamus hearing, Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey said she did not have the authority to force the state to “create a whole new pay and chase system.”

Late afternoon Tuesday, Judge Cooper admitted fatigue and continued the hearing to later in the week, but also signaled he may not have the authority to force the state to take action.

“The issue is not that everyone has not been paid,” Cooper said. “The issue is not that the computer system has not worked. Everybody seems to admit that. To me, the issue is a classic separation of powers issue.”

“I don’t disagree that it’s a terrible situation your clients are in,” he added. “The only thing we disagree on is what I can do.”

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