Faulty unemployment system works best in the wee hours

Wait ’til the midnight hour to try to sign up for unemployment on Florida’s chronically dysfunctional system, advises a laid-off worker from Sebastian who finally managed to submit an application for benefits.

But even those who have successfully negotiated the tricky application process said the state government has not yet notified them when they can expect to start receiving benefit checks.

“I haven’t seen a penny yet, no,” Linda Jacobetz said, three weeks after being furloughed from her physical therapy assistant job at Sebastian River Medical Center.

While there’s no word yet on when she’ll receive unemployment benefits, or how much she’ll be paid, Jacobetz said she felt fortunate to have successfully filed her application with the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

“It took me quite a while because it’s not easy to understand and it was very slow,” Jacobetz said about the unemployment program. “It took me 2 1/2 hours.”

What’s her advice to others who have been unable to sign up for unemployment benefits?

“Do it in the middle of the night,” Jacobetz said. “Don’t compete with the other hundreds of thousands of people that are trying to do it during business hours.

“What I decided was: ‘Getting my unemployment is my work right now, so I will get up in the middle of the night, if that’s the best way to get connected,’” Jacobetz said. “And I got on at 4 a.m. in the morning.”

Jacobetz was among hundreds of thousands of laid-off Florida workers whose unemployment claims have overwhelmed the Department of Economic Opportunity website since the coronavirus slammed the local, state, national and global economies.

More than 472,000 unemployment claims have been filed in Florida in the past three weeks, compared to 326,653 in all of 2019, according to State Senator Debbie Mayfield.

Laid-off workers from Vero Beach and Sebastian – and thousands throughout Florida – reported being repeatedly thrown off, locked out, or left in limbo by the DEO unemployment website.

Caitlyn McMinn of Vero Beach, who was laid off her job as a server at Bonefish Grill last month, is one of many who has not been able to submit her unemployment application through the DEO web site.

“I’m just at a standstill right now,” McMinn said. “We tried processing my application, but it still says ‘incomplete.’ I can’t get ahold of anyone on the phone. I’ve talked to other co-workers and they’ve also been having these same issues.

“It’s just really frustrating,” McMinn said. “The rents are coming up and it’s getting very stressful to not have any clue of what we need to do, what’s going to happen next and where we are going to get the help from.”

Several Vero Beach and Sebastian restaurant owners said their laid-off workers are having the same difficulty applying for unemployment benefits because of computer program failures.

“My entire staff filed for unemployment on the 15th of March, a week before the governor shut down the state,” said Kitty Wagner, owner of Blue Star restaurant in downtown Vero Beach. “Not one person has received a check.”

Liette Fuentes, the office administrator for Italian Cousin in Sebastian, said she has managed to sign up only one of the seven people she’s been trying to enter into the unemployment system for three weeks.

“You’ll get to step seven out of 10 and then it kicks you out and you’ve got to start all over again,” Fuentes said. “You have to refill out every single thing, put in every single question they’re asking you for and then you get kicked out again.”

The pandemic-triggered recession and difficulties filing for unemployment create a double whammy for restaurant workers who rely on an income boost during peak tourist season to carry them through the slow summer months, several restaurant owners said.

Laid-off workers here face additional challenges here because there is no state unemployment office in Indian River County, and the Career Source office on 82nd Avenue – where people could apply for unemployment and start looking for a job – closed March 18 due to the coronavirus outbreak.

So, if someone out of work can’t get through online, there is no physical location where they can go to get help.

Laid-off workers can still mail in paper applications for unemployment. They’re available online, from Rep. Erin Grall’s office and at the United Against Poverty reception desk, among other places.

To ramp up its capability to process unemployment applications, the state has installed 72 new computer servers to increase the system’s capacity and re-assigned several hundred state employees to help process claims, said Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Paige Landrum.

“The team at DEO is working diligently to get the resources provided by the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act to Floridians as soon as possible,” Landrum said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity’s dysfunction preceded the coronavirus outbreak, however.

The DEO unemployment system has been the subject of two critical state audits in the past three years, including a March 2019 operational audit that found the department failed to correct many deficiencies first identified in a June 2017 audit.

“The department lacked a proactive approach to identify and analyze the state Reemployment Assistance Claims and Benefits Information System technical system errors and other RA System defects that may prevent or hinder the processing of RA System data,” Auditor General Sherrill Norman said in the March 2019 report.

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