TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The time frame of recently-terminated private contracts geared toward handling the avalanche of pandemic unemployment claims coincides with reports that the hard-to-reach call centers now border on impenetrable.
According to the Department of Employment Opportunity, the agency has “phased out all third-party contractors” except for the company Lighthouse.
Destin-based Titan Technologies, one of the now-former contractors, employed 480 people in its call center, according to the DEO. Agency Director of Communications Emilie Oglesby, who said the DEO “was not fully satisfied with” Titan, did not know how many of the company’s call center workers were let go last week.
Dozens of calls and emails to 8 on Your Side indicate DEO’s changes mesh with new frustration to solve claim issues.
Dino Setaro of Haines City said he has “applied every day” for new jobs since he was laid off by a pest control company about a year ago. While Setaro hopes to land a new job by the end of the week, he is also trying to get through to DEO to track down three months of frozen unemployment benefits.
“They always keep telling you something new,” Setaro said. “They say, ‘Oh yes, it’ll get taken care of.’ It never gets taken care of.”
In May, months of frustration ended for laid off truck driver James Moitoso after 8 on Your Side helped him get through to DEO to unfreeze his benefits. But within weeks, the Inverness resident was back in a seemingly endless, unanswered queue, trying to get help after the payments stopped again.
“It’s impossible,” he said.
Another claimant who asked not be identified provided a DEO letter they say arrived six days after the date on the document that stated “this claim will not be processed” without a response “within 7 days of the date on the letter.” That allowed one day to get through to a call line several insist has gone from bad to worse.
According to Ogelsby, there are still “1,300 Reemployment Assistance staff working to make sure all eligible claimants are paid the benefits they are owed as quickly as possible.”
The decision to phase out contractors was also impacted by economic factors, Ogelsby said, including the state’s 4.8 unemployment rate.
But that April statistic, known as the U-3 rate, may not tell the entire story, according to University of South Florida economist Robert Jones. He said that rate is often used by policy makers and media but does not include other factors including anyone who gave up applying for benefits or didn’t apply in time.
The U-6 rate includes more data, Jones said.
“It tells a different story,” he said. “Again, people who really want to work but haven’t been able to find work for weeks or even months on end and they’ve temporarily given up.”
Setaro and others said they’re annoyed DEO didn’t release details about call center cuts.
“They should’ve informed us,” Setaro said. “Because now, what are we supposed to do? My bill collectors don’t want to just hear, ‘Well, I don’t have it.'”