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South Florida Workers Have Been Out Of Work For Over A Month. How Are They Getting By?

Of nearly 700,000 unique unemployment claims filed in Florida, just 17 percent have been processed, according to state labor officials.

More than a month ago, as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spread across South Florida, Jalani Jacobs lost his job as a line chef.

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His layoff was not unexpected. His bosses at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood warned they would be shutting down. What he did not expect is how dramatically life would change in a matter of weeks.

Instead of walking to a job on the beach that he loved, Jacobs, 37, takes two buses to get to a new temporary job stocking frozen food at a warehouse. Trucks deliver pallets of meals that he sorts and hauls to various freezers. Some days, as many as 50,000 meals arrive, he said.

“Me coming from a nice fine dining restaurant to unloading semi trucks, pushing and hauling stuff? Yeah, it’s a big, big change,” he said. “It’s definitely manual labor.”

He filed for unemployment at the end of March, but has yet to receive any benefits or even a response from the unemployment office. And because his new job doesn’t cover his expenses, he filed for food stamps this week.

Across Florida, workers have filed more than 700,000 unique unemployment claims, according to a new dashboard created this week by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity after a shake-up in leadership. Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter to take over the backlogged system last week after Department of Economic Opportunity Director Ken Lawson failed to get the system running.

As of Friday, April 24, the last day numbers were posted, just 22 percent of claims had been paid.

“The backlog is huge. And from my perspective, there's been a lot of wasted time,” said state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami democrat who has been pushing for the state to fix problems since March.

Rodriguez and other democrats say the state has been too slow to respond to problems that have been the subject of audits going back to 2015 repeatedly warning about needed fixes. They pushed to have the state waive waiting periods and a job search requirement. They now want DeSantis to make benefits retroactive to ease the hardship on workers who have not yet been able to get into the system to file claims.

DeSantis said this week he would make payments retroactive, but has yet to sign an order.

“Part of my frustration is there's a lot of rules they need to waive to make the system flow better during a pandemic,” Rodriguez said. “I started asking for these rule changes over a month ago, about five weeks ago, maybe even longer. And a lot of them just took forever.”

Rodriguez, an attorney, said making the changes can happen faster.

“I have been forced to continually change the recommendation I give my constituents because we don't have clarity on what they should anticipate,” he said. “So it's been a gigantic mess.”

DEO officials did not respond to a request for information.

Jacobs and other workers waiting for promised benefits are growing increasingly frustrated.

“At this moment, most of my coworkers have not received their stimulus checks,” Duane Thwaites, a concession chief at Marlins Park, wrote in an email. “We are becoming ... disappointed at the system and relying on the government for any sustainable assistance.”

Thwaites, 51, was sidelined when the ballpark shut down in March weeks before the opening game. The team donated $1 million to help workers, but Thwaites’ share amounted to just $796. While he’s grateful, he said many other workers received less.

“We only wish that our actual employer would do the same,” he said.

Jacobs is making ends meet with his new temporary job and food stamps. But he’s frustrated by the inability to get information about his unemployment claim.

“It’s like the Bermuda Triangle,” he said. “I’ve been on the internet trying to check, but it says they took the tool I used, CONNECT Florida, down because they’re trying to process payments.”

He has been unable to reach anyone by phone, a problem the state vowed to fix by hiring an outside call center with 250 additional call takers. He’s glad to have work, but said his temporary job is more grueling than his position as a line chef at a busy resort. And it provides no stability. His bus rides can get crowded many nights despite social-distancing rules.

“You don't want to say, 'Hey, no, you can't get on,'” he said.

He’s also not cooking. On Saturday, he’ll celebrate his daughter’s sixth birthday. He plans to use his food stamp money to help buy a cake and snacks for a small party of five.

This story was updated to reflect Friday's latest unemployment numbers.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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