Unemployment system still overwhelmed as lawmakers call for more benefits

Coronavirus

TAMPA (WFLA) -Multiple lawmakers from Florida are calling for higher unemployment benefits in the Sunshine State, as thousands are still unable to get their benefits or even apply on the state’s overwhelmed system.

The problems have been so bad, the state has launched a new, mobile-friendly site where people can apply for benefits.

Governor Ron DeSantis claimed in a press briefing Wednesday that his hands were tied in terms of the amount Floridians getting unemployment benefits, a maximum of $275 per week, one of the lowest amounts in the nation.

“Our benefits are set by law,” DeSantis said.

But in a videoconference earlier Wednesday morning, Democratic Reps. Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist called on Gov. DeSantis to increase the state’s unemployment benefit amount and extend the period for which benefits are allowed — pointing out that he has the power to do so in times of emergency.

“Governor DeSantis has already exercised his emergency powers under the unemployment insurance statute to waive the waiting period and the requirement to list job searches,” Rep. Castor said on the call, “so what is stopping him now from lifting that cap on the amount of money that will go to unemployed workers?”

The situation has become dire for many Floridians who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus.

Ashley Lehto lives in Bradenton with her husband and two children. She lost her job at Cortez Clam Factory just after the coronavirus shut it down–a week after her husband had just lost his.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Lehto said of the unemployment benefits system. “You’re spending hours and hours on there logging in, then getting booted out, logging in, then getting booted out. You almost feel like throwing your computer out the window.”

Lehto was able to apply for food stamps to help feed her family, but it’s the unemployment benefits she needs to really make a difference. She said even the changes that Gov. DeSantis made have not yet been reflected in the system.

“It’s very frustrating when you have the application in, and it says on the site that we’ve eliminated the requirement that you have to look for five jobs,” said Lehto. “But yet when you go in there, it wants you to put that in any way. It doesn’t make any sense and it’s very frustrating because you can’t move past that point.”

Lehto said she eventually put “coronavirus pandemic — can’t find work” as the only way it would let her get through that part of the system. She also said she wrote a letter to the DEO to explain it.

“They don’t answer emails and you can’t get through on the phone,” Lehto said. “A lot of times when you call, it will just disconnect. Or one time my husband got through, the connection was horrendous, and he ended up getting hung up on anyway.”

Gov. DeSantis said days ago he would be adding 2,000 workers and doubling the site’s online capacity to allow for more submissions online.

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