WFTX — From across the state, to right in our backyard, nine Floridians joined FOX 4 for a zoom call to talk about the same thing.
Mike Mikkelsson of Lehigh Acres, FL, Sandra Vera of Lehigh Acres, FL, Ron Resinck of Oakland Park, FL, Jay Floyd of Boca Raton, FL, Tramika Shannon of Sebring, FL, Nancy Nolan of Satellite Beach, FL, Benita Kinsler of Ocala, FL, Darren Brown of Fort Lauderdale, FL and Ray White of Lake Worth, FL all say they're locked out of their state unemployment accounts.
"Get the damn accounts unlocked," said Mikkelson.
They all say they're stuck in limbo, waiting for the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) to unlock their accounts and pay them their benefits.
"I don't know what else to do," said Vera.
All of them have been verified by the state's third-party partner, ID.me, and in theory, should have had their accounts unlocked in a matter of days. But most of them tell FOX 4 that they have waiting more than a month.
"I've been calling five times a day waiting three, four hours on the phone," said Vera.
And they say it's been near impossible to get someone to answer their calls for help.
So you can imagine their frustration when it was recently announced that DEO would be cutting end its contract with Titan Technologies a month early, they're a third-party group that they were paying to help manage customer calls.
"Class action lawsuit is what I would say," said Floyd.
"Ridiculous," said Shannon.
"This is the definition of insanity. You keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results and it's driving us crazy," said Resnick.
The state DEO released this initial statement to FOX 4 on the matter:
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department prioritized scaling up Reemployment Assistance Customer Service Center staff, which included third-party contractors, to assist with the significant increase in call volume made to the Reemployment Assistance Customer Service Centers. The Department previously planned to eventually phase out all third-party contracted staff as call volume continued to decrease due to the economic turnaround post-pandemic. Secretary Dane Eagle previously stated in November 2020, “Since, as I mentioned the claims are coming down week by week, we’re looking to offload that and eventually would like to get rid of the call centers completely.” As a follow-up to that commitment, the Department’s contract with Titan was set to expire on June 30, and the Department was not planning to extend this contract. However, the Department was not fully satisfied with the work the company was providing and so, because of performance issues, the Department has chosen to end this contract early.
As part of the state’s 2021-2022 budget that Governor DeSantis recently signed, $92.4 million in state and federal funds is being provided for continued operations and to modernize the state’s unemployment system. This funding will allow DEO to provide a more user-friendly experience for claimants applying for Reemployment Assistance benefits, as well as hire 435 additional Reemployment Assistance staff members to assist with call center support and processing claims. Currently, the Department has over 1,300 Reemployment Assistance staff working to make sure all eligible claimants are paid the benefits they are owed as quickly as possible. Utilizing internal DEO employees, instead of contracted call center staff, will allow these employees to better assist claimants with any issues.
Economic factors, such as the state’s low unemployment rate of 4.8 percent and twelve consecutive months of job growth, show that Floridians are returning to work. As such, the Department has phased out all third-party contractors that previously provided call center support, except for Lighthouse. The Department currently contracts with third-party contractor, Lighthouse, for Reemployment Assistance Customer Service Center support through the Unique Abilities Partner Program. You may view contracts, as well as any payments made to these third-party contractors, here [facts.fldfs.com].
The Department remains committed to making sure all eligible claimants are paid the benefits they are owed as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, the folks we spoke to say they want state leaders to know they're struggling.
"I was away from my family for two and a half days because I didn't know how to deal with this," said Floyd.
"I got an eviction notice too," said Brown.
"I know I'm going back to work but what am I supposed to do for my kids, I have three kids. What am I supposed to do?" said Shannon.
And they want to leave state leaders with this message:
"What are we supposed to do? What's the easiest way to get this fixed?" said Nolan.
"You guys always come on the news and talk about putting Floridians first. Where are you putting Floridians first at? Definitely not with this unemployment," said Kinsler.
FOX 4 sent the DEO a follow-up email asking them if those new call center jobs were posted yet and when they'd start hiring to fill those positions.
We also asked them for an interview to explain why it was taking so long to unlock accounts.
They told us no one was available to talk about it and didn't answer the question via email.
As far as the call center jobs, they directed us to a state job website, which shows a few posted customer service positions.