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System Fail, Part 2: Customer Disservice PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
June 2020

System Fail, Part 2: Customer Disservice

Florida’s unemployment nightmare continues

CSystem_1all the Florida Reemployment Assistance Hotline at 1-800-204-2418, put it on speaker, and just go about your business at home all day.

You might not get an answer at all from the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). If you call just before 7:30 a.m., you might get lucky. After three, four, or seven hours, you might reach a human. When that happens, they might help reset your forgotten unemployment PIN number, but that’s about it. They’re under strict instructions not to help you with much else. If they try, they could be fired.

Did you put your middle initial in the application but fail to include it during the phone call? Suspended, pending a fraud investigation.

Did you say you just got back from being out of town for more than two days? Disqualified. You should have been looking for work.

Did you say you’ve been to a career center in the past two weeks? Better say yes, even if it was closed for the pandemic. The correct answer is not the right answer.

They’re not allowed to tell you why you got the denial. They might not even have access to the system.

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As for getting your money, expect to be on hold for weeks, maybe months. Florida’s payouts are the nation’s slowest. As of May 27, this state, with nearly 22 million people, had paid out $3.5 billion in state and federal claims. New York, with 19 million people, had paid out more than $10 billion as of May 20, or three times as much per capita.

In May’s cover story, “System Fail,” the BT followed the odyssey of District 38 Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo, who drove to Tallahassee on April 21 with his chief of staff, Maggie Gerson, out of exasperation with the stories of misery inflicted by the state’s system.

“Of the last 150 days, I’ve spent 100 in a hotel room,” Pizzo said on his 44th birthday on May 20.

As of deadline, Pizzo’s office was still fielding calls into the wee hours from distressed people across the state, and trying to untangle an unemployment relief system perhaps designed to fail.

Also as of deadline, the state had reported receiving applications from 1,730,666 unique claimants. Of those, 1,070,676 claims were deemed eligible and processed, of which 95.1 percent, or 1,018,296 were paid. That leaves 712,370, or 41 percent of unique claimants, unpaid, whether unprocessed, deemed ineligible, or pending investigation. Of those paid, the DEO website’s dashboard doesn’t indicate how much they received, whether that total was $130 or $275 or $3300 or $6000.

“The governor says 95 percent of completed applications have been paid,” says Pizzo. “But are they only partially paid? It’s a total scam of spinning the success of a system. Here’s the $64,000 question: Why are 6000 people taking calls or paper applications if 95 percent of applicants have been paid?”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in appearances and conferences throughout the state and in Washington, D.C., has repeatedly cited nuanced policy decisions in the containment of outbreaks and deaths relative to other states. On May 27, Florida, No. 3 in population, was No. 9 in reported cases and No. 11 in deaths, according to the CDC.

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But the governor has not even pretended to defend the state’s CONNECT reemployment assistance system at www.floridajobs.org, launched in 2013 under his predecessor, Gov. (now Senator) Rick Scott. DeSantis has called it a “clunker” and “the equivalent of throwing a jalopy in the Daytona 500.”

On May 4, DeSantis ordered an investigation by the state’s inspector general. The state has responded with fitful results, doubling server capacity, spending $110 million for expanded call response, and supplementing CONNECT with a mobile-friendly PEGA system.

Deloitte, contractor on the $77 million system, said it gave the state exactly what it asked for by the time its work ended in 2015, as more efficient cloud-based computing was supplanting servers, and that its systems have worked well in other states. Pizzo and others have said the state’s server-based setup was antiquated when launched.

Meanwhile, the lawyers are beginning to circle. Tallahassee attorneys Marie Mattox and Gauthier Kitchen sued the state over its system flaws and red tape, and sought an emergency injunction for immediate payment. They went before a judge May 26, with more than five hours of testimony from the unemployed, a call-center worker, and a DEO official. The judge hadn’t ruled at press time.

Payment delays have strained not only people’s financial health, but their mental and physical well-being. Calls to the Switchboard 211 crisis helpline have more than doubled, with a large share of those calls related to food insecurity and psychological health, says Miriam Singer, president and CEO of Jewish Community Services of South Florida, which administers the 24/7 hotline.

Yet the crisis has also bonded people together into hives through social media, where they can stay informed and build constructive political action that could produce seedlings of greater civic engagement.


SSystem_2tephanie Andrus of Miami Beach had just paid off her credit cards in early March when her work stopped as an event planner at the Betsy and Loews hotels.

“I filed on March 13,” says Andrus, age 44, who moved from Dallas four years ago. “We’d had a great January and February. One week before everything canceled, I was supposed to get an interview for a full-time position at Loews Hotels. I’d never filed for unemployment. I kept hearing [the application] was ‘pending adjudication.’”

She adds, “There were other things I would rather do than call the DEO 88 times a day -- maybe take an online class.”

In exasperation, Andrus went to Pizzo’s office, and he sent her case to the governor’s office and the DEO. She went two months with no income.

Vanessa Martin of Wilton Manors isn’t so fortunate. The 35-year-old lives in an efficiency apartment with two daughters, ages three and eight, and home-schools an older child. She was furloughed March 18 as a server at The Pub, a popular Wilton Manors restaurant and night spot.

“I got on the DEO website and stayed up until 3:00 a.m. March 22, trying to file,” she says. “That was before they shut down the whole site. You tried to complete it and it would just kick you right out. I kept getting this BS, and it wouldn’t allow you to go forward if you place the wrong social and information. I’m still nerve-wracked, and my blood pressure is zooming.”

She had better luck getting food stamps, but was still waiting for her first payment in late May.

Henry Williams, age 56, of Margate, is an airborne infantry veteran who got furloughed March 15 as a manager at LA Fitness in Fort Lauderdale, and filed for unemployment in late March. He is married and the sole supporter of his family, which includes a 13-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.

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“We shut down March 15, and I filed unemployment at the end of the month -- or attempted to,” says Williams. “I didn’t have a PIN. I’d never filed unemployment. I couldn’t get anyone at the DEO. So I got a manual application and filed it. I got an e-mail about a month later, on April 27, saying the application was received. After that, no contact.”

On May 18, he got a letter asking for additional information to verify his identity. “It’s a struggle,” he says. “The money is about depleted. Now it’s getting scary. Really, really scary. I just applied for food stamps online. It was a fairly easy process. I hope to get some positive feedback.”

Carl Rose, a Gainesville army veteran, was furloughed from Centerplate, an international catering company, on March 5, right after March Madness. He and his wife, Denise, a fellow army veteran who procures medical equipment for the Veterans Administration, started to apply online for unemployment March 22, but both say the system kept freezing. They tried for five days to no avail and finally got through after they set the alarm for 2:00 a.m. to get on the state’s CONNECT website.

“You can’t go to the screen unless you put in the information,” says Denise. “Then you can’t review the information. Imagine doing something over five times in the middle of the night.”

She continues: “Weeks go by, and we call and get through the DOE at 10:00 a.m., April 15. Charlita answered the phone. I explained we’d applied and I gave her my husband’s name. She said she didn’t want any of our info. Just the claimant ID and social. She said, ‘Keep trying. The system’s down, the system’s down.’ She said she’d call back. She hung up and didn’t call back until the next day at the same time. She told me to call the same number I’d called the day before. This is when you start doing your own research.”

Denise and Carl began to figure out how to navigate the system, working with the offices of both Pizzo and State Senator Anna Eskimati of Orlando, and forming social media groups and citizens’ hives with other people recently unemployed, as well as individuals from all walks looking for ways to help, and sharing the information with Pizzo’s and Eskimati’s offices.


OSystem_6ne member of the state’s army of call-takers was Nicole, who works in the Tampa Bay area and who requested that her last name not be used for fear of retribution.

 She’d just had a job offer rescinded in March when she got a call from an agency to work from home on her personal computer and phone for $18 an hour, 40 hours a week. The job? Answering calls for the DEO through Tampa-based staffing company Kforce, contracted out to Titan Technologies, based in Fort Walton Beach.

“We got on a two-hour training session,” she explains. “There was no training pertaining to what we were doing. It was all related to cyber security. They provided us with two pages of information already on the website. The people at the DEO knew people couldn’t get through. Within 45 seconds of the lines opening up at 7:30 in the morning, the lines were full and couldn’t accept any more calls that day.

“When I answered, claimants would say: ‘Oh, my gosh! I can’t believe I got to a live person. I’ve been on the phone six or seven hours, and I’ve been trying to get benefits for five weeks.’ And I couldn’t help them. We could reset PINs but couldn’t help with anything claimant-specific. One kid changed the HTML programming so we could make changes to applications and help people. He was fired. If you did anything specific, you’d lose your job.”

She couldn’t even confirm receipt of an application: “Someone would say, ‘Did you receive the application?’ I couldn’t answer. We were told that if someone said they just got back into town, to ask probing questions, and if they were out of town for more than two days, to have benefits denied. If someone calls and says his name is Bob Smith, but his application said Bob A. Smith, the claim would get locked pending a fraud investigation. Normally that takes 72 hours to unlock. But now it’s taking four to six weeks to get the fraud claim reviewed.”

There have been other oddities. Pizzo says he heard of cases where applicants were asked if they’d gone to the career assistance center in the previous two weeks. “Such centers have been closed with the pandemic,” he says, “so the correct answer would be no. But the right answer is yes.”

Says Nicole: “It was so disheartening to realize you were just a babysitter on the phone lines. I’d hear people on the phones saying, ‘I need to get this approved to get food for the kids.’ At the sound of the word ‘food,’ you’d hear the kids crying in the background. One woman had a four-year-old and an infant, and over the phone started to give the four-year-old breast milk again.”

She also says that the two employment sites for Florida -- CONNECT, or Floridajobs.org, and PEGA, the mobile site -- didn’t even talk to each other.

“One person told me: ‘I’m going to get the .45 and put it right to my head.’ He was a restaurant manager in a small business,” she adds. “He didn’t have any income and couldn’t pay his child support, was staying with friends, and couldn’t pay rent. I couldn’t do anything because he submitted his application through the PEGA portal. That was basically a data collection source. He got totally frustrated, totally defeated. He said, ‘I cannot do this for another day. I won’t call another number.’”

After two weeks of Zoom training to become a full DEO call-center agent, Nicole quit on May 18. She’s lucky. She’ll start another job this month.

“Please don’t use my last name. I don’t want the governor and his people coming after me,” she says, referring to allegations of a broader culture of retaliation against whistleblowers. On May 20, for example, on television with Vice President Mike Pence standing beside him, DeSantis launched an attack on 30-year-old Rebekah Jones, who coded and helped design, build, and manage the state’s popular COVID-19 dashboard. Jones said she was fired for resisting manipulation of COVID-19 numbers to speed the state’s reopening. DeSantis said she was fired for insubordination and then cited an unresolved cyber stalking complaint. Calculated or not, it was a striking act of public cruelty.


On May 13, Stephanie Andrus of Miami Beach got her first payment from the DEO: $1925, followed by two more payments of $275, the state’s weekly allotment for unemployment, and a lump sum payment of $3000 May 27.

Vanessa Martin of Wilton Manors had not gotten a dime from unemployment by late May, but she was at least getting food stamps and trying to balance a potential reopening of The Pub with childcare.

Henry Williams of Margate finally received food stamp approval May 23, but no unemployment money, and was ready to go back to work as LA Fitness was scheduled to reopen May 28.

Carl Rose of Gainesville got his first $130 partial state unemployment payment May 11, followed by two $600 checks from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program. He was still awaiting his other payments.

“If I were queen, what would I do?” asks Denise Rose. “I’d go from the earliest filer who hasn’t been paid and resolve it on a first-come, first-served basis. People are coming out in groups -- investigating, researching. People are angry. But people also want to say, ‘What can I do to help?’ That shows you the graciousness of Floridians, whether they’re cashiers or bartenders or nurses or doctors. I find in all aspects this has made me want to be a better listener and help other Floridians any way I can.”

The unemployment website problems, and struggles like these, pose political challenges for DeSantis, up for reelection in 2022, and one of Trump’s most important national allies. He and Trump held a nationally televised 36-minute news conference in late April about the state’s response to COVID-19, sitting on matching yellow chairs with similar splay-kneed posture, dark suits, and complementing ties. In a DeSantis profile on May 11, the Washington Post noted their similar accordion arm gestures and hand mannerisms. Throughout May, DeSantis took a remarkably combative stance at news conferences.

“DeSantis is preparing to be the Republican nominee for president in 2024,” says Pizzo, who has potential political ambitions of his own.

“Run government like a business,” has been a mantra for decades, particularly in the GOP. But what kind of business -- at least in the matter of customer service? A highly profitable consumer finance operation or a payday loan company that can destroy your credit rating and happiness with a keystroke? A Disney, with a proven customer-satisfaction metric? A mom-and-pop, building the American dream on narrow margins with grit and sweat, and perhaps turning it into a franchise model? A Trump hotel? A Trump casino, perhaps?

“I’d give CONNECT an A+ for doing what it was designed to do -- fail,” says Denise Rose. “People come to Florida and want to know their bartender and get those chicken wings and a good grouper sandwich. They want that relationship. They want people to remember them. You know how great a feeling that is, being remembered? Our state is famous for that. Customer service. You’re not getting that from the government. People aren’t going to forget this.”

 

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