TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Florida’s labor unions are demanding immediate action from Gov. Ron DeSantis to fix an unemployment system they call “broken by design.”

The demands coming from Florida’s AFL-CIO include increasing weekly benefit caps and extending how long beneficiaries can receive assistance. The petition, boasting more than 11,000 signatures according to an AFL-CIO spokesperson, also asks for increased staff resources at the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Florida’s unemployment system may be called CONNECT but if there’s an issue with your claim, many will tell you that connecting with a person who can fix it is nearly impossible.

Here at 8 On Your Side, we continue to hear the same complaints. Unemployment seekers with claim issues can’t get anyone from the DEO on the phone to sort out the issue. On the rare occasion callers get a person on the phone, they often can’t access their claim, citing an offline system or lack of proper credentials.

This, even though the state spent $110 million to improve its unemployment call centers.

“I just need one person on the phone who actually has access to the system,” explained Norm Cole, a furloughed college employee.

He says he’s been locked out of his claim for 41 days due to an older claim from 2018 still in the system. It should be a fairly easy fix, but he can’t get anyone on the phone to help him. They tell him they don’t have access to the system.

When Cole tried emailing more than 500 DEO employees looking for some resolution, at least 62 of the emails bounced back simply because his email came from outside the organization. Many others were generic auto-replies that resulted in nothing.

“It’s supposed to be CONNECT,” Cole said. “But I feel rather disconnected at the moment.”

Even the DEO seems to give itself the runaround.

Screenshots on the legislative Facebook page for Florida State Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami) show what he described as a conversation between a call center worker trying to get help from DEO supervisors. However, the supervisors all claimed to be brand new employees without credentials to access the system and could not provide the employee assistance.

Pizzo’s post included the hashtag #YourTaxDollarsAtWork.

Another South Florida lawmaker, Rep. Cindy Polo (D-Hialeah), tweeted Thursday that her legislative aides were receiving calls from disgruntled unemployment applicants who previously called DEO’s call center, only to be turned away and instructed to call local lawmakers instead.

“Applicants are being told to call their State Rep for assistance instead of the DEPT DESIGNED TO HANDLE THIS!!” she wrote. “Shameful.”

8 On Your Side reached out to the DEO regarding both Pizzo’s and Polo’s posts and they provided us with this statement.

DEO recognizes that many individuals are seeking an improved level of customer service that Floridians expect during this unprecedented time. To quickly serve Floridians, in March, DEO took immediate action to begin increasing staffing so that DEO could best serve Floridians impacted by COVID-19. DEO hired multiple contact center vendors to quickly assist Floridians and our agency. Since late March, DEO has been able to add more than additional nearly 6,000 contact center representatives through our contracted contact centers and our DEO team members. 

DEO’s strategy was to the hit the ground running, so DEO immediately began training these individuals on the top issues that were preventing Floridians from completing their applications, such as PIN resets and Frequently Asked Questions, to ensure they could serve Floridians quickly. This enabled our seasoned DEO employees to prioritize claim specific questions and allow our third party contact center providers time to learn the system which ensured Floridians got paid, quickly. This week, 200 of those new contracted team members received and completed the full training and can now provide full claim-specific help to Floridians.

To understand the volume of calls DEO receives, the week ending March 8, DEO received 28,000 calls and the week ending March 14, DEO received 224,000 calls. Since March 15, DEO has received more than 15 million calls. To put in perspective, an average call takes 20 minutes to from start to finish on claim-specific questions.

DEO provides answers to frequently asked questions and answers to all of the call center representatives to ensure they have an understanding of reemployment assistance benefits, and the knowledge they need to assist Floridians. DEO has utilized a phased training approach to make trained call center representatives available to respond to the high-volume requests as quickly as possible. 

DEO has mandated to all contact center vendors that all contact center representatives should be Floridians.

Serving Floridians during this unprecedented economic and public health crisis continues to be the number one priority of DEO.

Further limitations on the state’s CONNECT system include limitations on how many users can be on the site at once. CONNECT also comes down for processing and maintenance 12 hours a day Monday through Friday and for the duration of the weekend.

As of May 14, more than 1,140,000 unemployment claims in Florida have been processed. Roughly 711,000 claimants have received some form of payment, which is roughly 60% of processed claims.

Hundreds of thousands of applications are still waiting to be processed.