(NEW YORK) — When Alex Rasky was forced to shut down his family-owned retail location in Florida, he quickly realized he would have to file for unemployment. It took time and patience, but he thought he had done everything right.
“I applied through Florida’s website on March 20,” he told ABC News. “Fast forward to today, my status is still pending.”
Rasky says he cannot get in touch with anyone at Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity to check his application status — and with the birth of his first child expected next month, Rasky is worried.
“We’re going on three weeks with zero income,” said Rasky. “The world in the state that it’s in is scary enough, but adding this financial fiasco to it all is extremely stressful.”
Rasky was one of over 70,000 Floridians who applied for unemployment that week. The following week, over 270,000 more Floridians applied. In the span of those two weeks, over 10 million Americans applied for unemployment, a record high.
The number of Americans who applied for unemployment last week will be released Thursday morning, but the unprecedented influx in applications has already created a number of issues for those in dire need of benefits.
The DEO, like many other state labor departments, is overwhelmed. Numerous reports of its website crashing and its phone lines ringing empty are leaving people who desperately need unemployment benefits in limbo.
“We need help in Florida; people need to know what’s going on here,” said Rasky. “There are those who have yet to successfully apply for unemployment, and others who continue to wait for their application to be approved.”
“We were actually in the process of filing bankruptcy,” said Dani Priebe, a Florida resident whose husband Paul filed for unemployment about two weeks ago. “We had used up our entire savings to pay a lawyer to get ourselves out of debt, wipe the slate clean and start fresh … and then this pandemic hit.”
Paul worked in restaurant management before he was laid off like many others due to COVID-19. He successfully applied for unemployment about three weeks ago.
“Filing for us wasn’t as difficult as what I’m seeing others have gone through,” said Dani. “The problem is that his application has been pending ever since.”
Dani works in restaurant management as well and says her paycheck is currently her family’s only source of income. Her hours have been drastically cut, and she says the 16 hours she works won’t be enough to feed her family of five. Her family has applied for food stamps.
“You’re allowed to go in and file for underemployment — and I have been trying,” said Dani, adding that the website crashes before she’s ever able to apply. “And you can’t call because that’s pointless — you never get through. There have been times I want to throw my computer, my phone, because it’s so frustrating.”
Danielle Hopson was a cocktail waitress in Delray Beach, Florida, before she was laid off due to COVID-19. Like Rasky and the Priebes, Hopson thought she’d done everything right.
“I applied for unemployment March 13 and have had no type of information sent to me about processing, how much I will be receiving or if I was even approved,” Hopson told ABC News. “You cannot get ahold of anyone to speak to as the phone lines are constantly down; the website is even worse than it was before.”
Hopson said the thought of not having any income for the next few weeks is “terrifying and debilitating.”
“I have phone bills, electric bills, cable bills and groceries I am pinching pennies for,” said Hopson. “I just had to apply for food stamps, something that I never thought I would have to do.”
Hopson is grateful, however, that she was at least able to apply online. This week, hundreds of people risked exposure to the virus by venturing to locations offering paper unemployment applications in Hialeah, Florida.
“I saw that they are handing [applications] out at places, which are creating long lines with people close to each other, which is not sticking to the social distancing [guidelines] for COVID-19,” said Hopson. “We need to get the word out about this because the people of Florida desperately need help, something needs to happen now.”
Ginny Baker, a recently unemployed call service worker, is 58 years old. She said the DEO website crashed halfway through her application, leaving her facing the possibility of having to pick up a paper application.
“I wouldn’t go,” said Baker. “I am desperate for money, sure — but I don’t think it’s a good idea right now.”
Florida is far from the only state labor department being inundated with calls and website traffic. ABC News has followed Arkansas resident Carlton Oakes since his struggle to apply for unemployment benefits when he was abruptly laid off in March.
Since his initial attempts, Oakes was finally able to file, but said he is not receiving the right amount of money. His wife, Michelle, said that “the math doesn’t add up at all.”
“We’ve emailed the office at least four times,” Oakes said. “We’ve also tried calling and can’t get through to a live person.”
The Oakes said they’ve reached out to Gov. Asa Hutchison’s office, but have received nothing more than an automatic reply.
States are beginning to roll out the unemployment benefits included in the $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress last month to salvage the economy. One of the benefits for those who have filed for unemployment is a $600 weekly increase for up to four months, on top of state benefits.
The Arkansas Department of Workforce Services said the extra $600 unemployment check would be added to weekly unemployment benefit payments starting as early as this week for those who’ve successfully applied. The Oakes said they’ve yet to receive the extra payment.
State labor officials in Minnesota and New York also claim the extra $600 will be included in unemployment checks starting this week.
Several states are reallocating state employees to answer unemployment phone lines and questions from applicants. An Arkansas DWS spokesperson said the department has added phone lines, increased their system capacity, reassigned DWS staff and at Arkansas Workforce Centers to answer hotlines and assist with filing claims and extended hours of operation for the online filing claims system to include weekends.
The Florida DEO announced Tuesday it added 500 additional personnel to support its phone lines and other department needs.
“The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity is committed to ensuring Floridians are able to receive the benefits owed to them during this global pandemic,” Ken Lawson, executive director of the DEO, said in a statement.
The DEO also installed 72 new servers to increase website capacity, claiming the system can now handle up to 120,000 simultaneous visitors, compared to the usual 20,000. The department has also created a mobile-friendly online application form.
Not everyone, however, has seen the DEO’s website capacity improve.
“I don’t see any difference — I still keep getting booted out of that system,” said Dani Priebe.
“I still don’t have answers, and we need them,” she added. “Rent is going to be due May 1, electric is due and I know all these [companies] are out there waiving late fees, and that’s great, but it still needs to be paid … even if it is later.”
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