A look back at Florida’s 2020 response to unemployment

We were with you every step of the way in 2020 when it came to Florida unemployment. We brought your questions directly to leaders charged with handling the unemployment problems in the state. We wanted to take a look back at the timeline for the unemployment process in Florida as the year comes to a close.

Since March, out of almost five million Floridians who applied, two million received unemployment benefits in 2020.

The lucky ones still experienced all kinds of issues along the way.

In what felt like the blink of an eye, businesses closed their doors. The flood gates opened, and unemployment claims went rushing to the state — half a million by April.

“People need their benefits, and they don’t need them four weeks from now. They need them two weeks ago when this whole system crashed down,” Mike Baroody told WINK News.

The state website couldn’t handle it, leaving hundreds of thousands in limbo, including Karen McInerney of Cape Coral.

“It’s a disaster, and the people deserve better,” McInerney told WINK News.

Weeks of delayed payments took people to the streets.

MORENaples group putting face to state’s unemployment problems with rally

The governor compared the system to a “jalopy” in “The Daytona 500.” And  then the state troubleshooted the broken website and brought in new leadership.

MORENew head of DEO working to revamp unemployment system, promises change

In April, we asked the new head of the DEO at the time: “Florida is one of the slowest if not the slowest to get people their unemployment benefits in the country. What do you say to that?”

“We’re going to bring that number up, I promise you that,” Secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services Jonathan Satter told WINK News.

The state broke that promise, prompting legal action.

“We’re hearing tragic stories about people who can’t buy their medication, they can’t buy food,” attorney Marie Mattox told WINK News.

“Feed myself, or pay all my rent. It’s a tough choice to have to make,” Franklin Speed told WINK News.

In May, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s customer service lines were still backed up for hours, and the voice on the other end couldn’t help.

MORECall takers limited when trying to help unemployment applicants

“I’m unauthorized to look up claims or accounts because our system for employees, they’re still working on it,” a DEO call taker told WINK News.

The governor promised to launch an investigation, as frustration grew surrounding the swamped system.

“I mean, you have no option other than to sit there and wait,” Belinda Anderson told WINK News.

By June, we had already sent more than 10,000 of your names and concerns to the DEO for answers.

“I don’t know how much longer I can hold out without getting this money when I need it,” Victor Rivera told WINK News.

“If we don’t get the money, where is the money going?” Apryl Davies told WINK News.

The weekly $600 payments from the federal government ended in July, which was income that kept many people afloat, including Anne Lindberg of Port Charlotte.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if that stops completely, I have no idea. I mean rent, sell my house, move, I don’t know,” Lindberg told WINK News.

Amid stalled stimulus talks, President Donald Trump brought brief relief, authorizing a limited amount of $300 weekly “Lost Wages Assistance” to supplement benefits.

“I was ecstatic, that $900 is necessary to pay my bills,” Bonnie Armstrong told WINK News.

In September, a new man in charge made more promises to get you paid and fix the system.

“We’ve paid 97% of eligible claimants,” new Executive Director of the DEO Dane Eagle told WINK News. “That’s a great number, but the 3%, that means 3% of Floridians, 3% of families out there are still waiting to get what’s owed to them. So that’s something that I’m committed to.”

“People need help, I mean, really. They do,” Cynthia Cox told WINK News.

As the state continued to open, we saw some people go back to work. The number of new unemployment claims started to decline.

But many are still left with tough decisions.

“Do you pay your credit card bill or do you buy food? Do you pay your mortgage or you know, you let your car payment go?” Donna Spreitzer told WINK News.

Despite some improvements, glitches and months of missing payments remain a problem.

“They owe me between $10,000 and $11,000,” Patrick Hoffman told WINK News.

A sea of people have struggled to navigate the broken unemployment system and now they’re hoping for change in the new year.

We spoke to many more people than who we could fit in our story, and we still hear from people every single day with unemployment issues.

But some good news is — in 2021 new applicants will see more weeks of state unemployment: up to 19 weeks.

The state legislature will also meet in March to discuss changes to the system.

For ongoing updates and information on unemployment, follow WINK News Investigative Reporter Sara Girard on Twitter and Facebook.

She also updates the WINK News FAQ: Unemployment Resources page as information is received.

Reporter:Sara Girard
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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