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Key West COVID-19 | Florida unemployment system designed, at best, to disrespect workers

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

04/07/2020

The plastic pirate skeleton covered with Fantasy Fest beads keeps me company on my porch. A bit weather-worn, he swings in the breeze and makes me smile while I write my columns, manage Key West Island News’ social media and occasionally do some billable hours. Everyone should have a touch of whimsy around.

Especially these days when the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has much of the planet in isolation. Even those most cavalier, those who think this is all so much hoaxy hype, are having to adjust their center point for what constitutes normal. Usually the skeleton keeps me sane. But not when it comes to the broken Florida unemployment assistance program.

That’s the one outrage-sparking catastrophe I can’t let go.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is intentionally crafted to deny unemployment benefits, make it daunting if not impossible to file claims and to max out weekly payments at $275, making Florida’s unemployment benefits among the stingiest in the country. This was the doing of former Gov. Rick Scott, who in 2011, made the decision to slash Florida unemployment benefits and implement an online filing system about which the best that can be said is that “there is one.”

Up an hour before dawn this morning, I again tried to file an unemployment claim. I’ve been helping friends — and now Ranger Ed — navigate the gawdawful website. I was hoping that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ headline-making promises of yesterday and the weekend were true: Major progress on the website; working better; getting there. Oh, and part of what was wrong? They forgot to plug it in. The incompetence is staggering.

New and improved? Not so much. Still the same clunky interface that kicks me off multiple times. Allows me to enter data on one or two pages — if I get in at all — and then kicks me off with either a page full of “bad server” code warnings or a message that says “Please be patient. Try again.” I’m a geek. I think I can wrestle most websites successfully. I can read stuff even when the website page is a nightmare for anyone without a command of language.

After two hours, I shut it down. The website tells me I have to have a completed filing before April 11 or there are no benefits and I have to file again.

So, if you were laid off three weeks ago and have been unable to file for your weekly benefits claims — you will not be paid retroactively. Benefits for those three weeks disappear and you can see if you can get into the system for week four. Or not. Getting the claim filed is the first step. The state still has to review the claim, do all its paperwork and go through the appeals processes. Meanwhile, the state sits on its collective, wringing hands

Solution? You bet, says DeSantis. Let’s go with paper forms! (And, plug it in; see above). Yay. I downloaded the paper forms. They are, to be kind, a jumbled mess and they cannot be filed online. You snail mail them to a post office box in Tallahassee where someone, perhaps, eventually, or not, will open them, try to decipher them and decide if you get any cash. Back and forth you’ll go — on paper? By phone? Email? Who knows? — with some recently-hired staffer who hasn’t got a clue, whose supervisor likely doesn’t either and for both of them, despite their best of intentions, without a system and process that stands a chance of succeeding.

What could possibly go wrong?

Since 2011, Rick Scott, Ron DeSantis, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and complicit and/or negligent legislators, appointed and anointed leaders and deciders have focused exclusively on how they can benefit Florida business. By 2015, Florida ranked number 1 in the nation in denying unemployment benefits and number one in low wage insurance costs to businesses. Scott was a happy man. Ditto the chamber. DeSantis et al adhered to Scott’s path, equally happy, refusing to consider, much less fix, the annual audits that showed the system was broken — starting with a website that does not work, is designed to deny benefits and with a user interface that suggests one use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, a browser that Microsoft no longer supports and is riddled with security errors. Oh, any you cannot file via the website on a mobile device, tablet or smartphone. Only a desktop or laptop.

There’s a lot about how the coronavirus pandemic is being handled that will make us proud to be humans. We will, I believe, figure out a better, smarter, more compassionate way forward.

But right now, I’m not willing to budge an inch on this: Rick Scott; Ron DeSantis; Ken Lawson, the executive director of FLDOE; and every hanger on, elected or otherwise, who neglected or pro-actively created this nightmare should be sentenced to navigating that website and paperwork without help from staff, family or geeky friends. And, then they should have to live on $275 a week. With nothing coming at week 13.

4 Comments

  1. Amy Gage

    Thank you, Linda, for the article. I myself have been trying for 2 weeks and 5 days to get through to FLDEO for a pin reset. Yesterday I got as far as “in cue” and stayed on hold for 3 hours 4 minutes to no avail. So, today I start again. I have been rolling with tide for a couple weeks now. However, my patience is gone and I am so angry for myself and the thousands of others in the same situation. New Yorkers are already receiving their CARE act money as well as unemployment. AND we are being told there will be no retroactive pay! How is that even fair, let alone legal? I was laid off Friday, March 20. Any other state, by at least the next Tuesday, you would be in the system and able to access your account when needed. We need to keep shouting to ceiling “We are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!”; so the whole nation knows how we, in Florida, are being screwed over.
    We also need to “vote blue” in November 2020 AND in 2024 when Rick Scott (or my pet name “Lex Luther”) is up for election. He needs to be expelled even before then!
    Scott is the main reason for our pain and misery. He is a proven liar and thief. During his tenure as CEO of Columbia/HCA, the company defrauded Medicare, Medicaid and other federal programs. Columbia/HCA gave kickbacks to doctors so they would refer patients. Columbia/HCA made patients look sicker than they were, so Medicare would pay more. Columbia/HCA kept two sets of books.
    The Department of Justice fined them for $1.7 billion in the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history. Scott claims “he didn’t know what was going on”!?! Absolute B.S. that he was never charged.
    Also, experts agree, that a system (unemployment site) built for $77.9 million dollars should work for the masses. So, where, or to what or to whom, did the funds go to?
    Thank you for your time and stay healthy, ๐Ÿ™‚

    Sincerely,
    Amy M Gage
    Key West, FL
    Thank you

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Oh, Amy, I am so sorry, for you, for all of us Floridians trying to work that system. I saw a quote this morning from DeSantis, who said maybe he’d consider retroactive benefits for those who couldn’t file “through no fault of their own.” Well, that would be likely tens of thousands. Wonder how he’s going to make us “prove” it? Keep trying. Keep the faith. And, now, I am going back into the system and see if I can get done. Good luck!

  2. Jerry Nichols

    Linda,
    We love reading everything you write. As a former ranger in Key West there are so many aspects of the State of Florida that are broken.
    Rick Scott is the worst governor Florida has ever elected and why we still call him, โ€œPink slip Rick.โ€
    Keep up the good work of telling like it is.
    You and Ed stay safe!

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Thanks, Jerry. Stay well!

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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