Home / Hundreds hired to help people navigate Florida unemployment system, agency needs more

Hundreds hired to help people navigate Florida unemployment system, agency needs more

Reporter: Sara Girard Writer: Jack Lowenstein
Published: Updated:

Executive Director Dane Eagle of Florida Department of Economic Opportunity says he needs more money and more people to fix the unemployment system.

We’ve received questions, concerns and suggestions from people about how to make it better, and took them to Eagle.

Meanwhile, Patrick Hoffman of Fort Myers has almost given up on the DEO.

He’s back to work now, but when he lost his job this past summer, he only received two weeks of payments from the state.

“They owe me between $10,000 and $11,000,” Hoffman said. “They say, ‘Oh, there’s a computer glitch in the system.’ And then, ‘If you don’t get paid within two or three weeks to call us back.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Still, Hoffman’s weeks show up as “disqualified.”

“They said, they see no reason why I shouldn’t get paid,” Hoffman explained.

He says he feels cheated.

“It’s up to the state to pay us, and we’re not getting paid to live,” Hoffman said. “I’m lucky I had my savings account, or I’d be on the street.”

We shared Hoffman’s story with Eagle.

“When I hear cases like that, we delve into it and see what is exactly happening, and we readily admit that there are IT glitches that we continue to have to fix,” Eagle said.

Two months into the job, Eagle, a former state representative of Cape Coral, says leading the DEO has been a whirlwind.

“Since I’ve started, we’ve been able to process over 600,000 claims to the tune of over $2.5 billion,” Eagle said. “I mean, that is real progress. There’s progress being made.”

But Eagle recognizes some people still feel left behind. We spoke to him when he was first appointed to DEO in September, and he asked for the suggestions from Floridians about how to make the system better, which we provided.

Eagle also took suggestions from lawmakers helping claimants navigate the system. WINK News obtained emails from lawmakers to the DEO asking for help with many issues, including backdating and mixed messages. The biggest complaint was a lack of communication.

Eagle says they’ve worked on that.

“We’ve ramped up our legislative affairs department,” Eagle said. “We have a new director there and new staff there, so we’ve been able to assist them with the claimants that they’ve been trying to address.”

Eagle says they’ve also hired more than 200 people since he’s started, mostly in the Reemployment Assistance department to handle more “complicated” claims. The agency has also already spent $18 billion on operational costs and fixing the claims portal.

“The system is far from perfect. We’ve been able to improve it to make sure that it is at least operational and then we can get things done,” Eagle said.

Eagle says he wants to ask lawmakers for $5 million in the next legislative session to add at least 100 more people to his staff.

Most of the suggestions submitted reaffirm the issues Eagle’s team is already working on, he says, including IT improvements, streamlining the application process and ramping up communication.

In the meantime, Hoffman is among many others still waiting to receive benefits, and he says promises don’t pay the bills.

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” Hoffman said. “I just want my money.”

The state also says it’s making changes as weekly unemployment claims go down. But it won’t stop improvements.

The first week of November, Eagle says DEO saw roughly 65,000 new claims, which is down from earlier in the pandemic when the agency saw almost double that in a single week.

Although Eagle says he has hired hundreds of staff members since he taking the role, he plans to cut back on call centers.

“That was needed at the height of COVID,” Eagle said. “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. We still have our internal one that we would have for perpetuity but on the back, and we need more talented staff to address the complicated claims.”

Eagle also said his team is looking to other states as examples for how to fix the system. For now, he’s preparing for the end of the year when the CARES Act expires. After that, he plans to show the legislature what went wrong and what he needs when session starts in March.

For ongoing updates and information on unemployment, follow WINK News Investigative Reporter Sara Girard on Twitter and Facebook.

She also updates the WINK News FAQ: Unemployment Resources page as information is received.