Scars of the pandemic: Unemployment crisis

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 7:38 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down and hundreds of thousands of Floridians filed for unemployment.

In that time, we heard from so many of you who called and emailed asking for help with individual cases. For many, those benefits were slow in coming and took weeks to see a dime from the state.

“Scared to death I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Frances Waters, who received unemployment. So many of you fought to make ends meet as you waited for assistance. “By that time I was bankrupt,” said Waters.

It took Waters 22 weeks - more than five months - to get an unemployment check, but she says by then, it was too late.

“By the time I paid all my bills and got everything caught up I still had no money so I didn’t have a choice, I had to come back here,” said Waters.

Waters moved from the Suncoast. She’s now in Indiana playing catch up with bills as she searches for that pre-pandemic quality of life.

“I’m still upset about that. If it wasn’t for how this was handled, I’d still be in Florida. But I guess we can’t change what’s already past,” said Waters.

Frances isn’t alone. This time last year we demanded answers daily from the state. We even created a database to send to the governor and the Department of Economic Opportunity. More than 2,000 of you entered your names after receiving nothing and ultimately demanding benefits from the state.

“I received correspondence from the DEO saying now that I never qualified for regular unemployment, I never qualified for PUA and now I’m subject to eventually pay all that money back,” said Debra Denslow.

For people like Denslow, the battle with the DEO never ended. She’s now in the appeals process.

“It makes me feel stressed. Very stressed out. It’s appalling and I know I’m not the only one going through this,” said Denslow. As our economy reopens and many head back to work, we wanted to know what’s changed.

“Let’s say the pandemic took another turn and we had to ramp back up again, I think the team is ready to do that. They’ve been through it. They’ve learned from the past,” said the director of the DEO, Dane Eagle. Eagle is the man who took over the broken system in September.

“We ordered a third-party report of the CONNECT system just to see why did it fail? What’s wrong with it? How can we fix it moving forward?” asked Eagle. The state inspector general also conducted an internal investigation and documents show the $81 million system was never fully tested.

“Two subsequent reports to work off and we used it this past session,” said Eagle. So what’s the future of the CONNECT unemployment site?

“We now have the tools in place to fix CONNECT once and for all. We got the funding to do so it’s going to cost $72 million over the next two years,” said Eagle. Add that to the $81 million it cost to create the first failed system but he says this time will be different.

“Scrap it down and rebuild it so it’s more modernized cloud-based and can serve the people of Florida moving forward,” said Eagle.

To date, the DEO has paid out more than $27 billion in benefits to the more than two million Floridians who asked for unemployment assistance.

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