ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The pandemic’s one-year mark can trigger painful reminders to when a record number of Floridians were suddenly out of work, the flood of unemployment claims overwhelming a broken system in need of tens of millions of dollars in repairs.
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern caught up with some of the people who first contacted ABC Action News early on, desperate for answers on how to collect the unemployment checks they were owed, for a check-in on where people are now — the hope and hard realities.
Last year, the I-Team met Tonya Olson, a physical therapist out of work without a penny coming in for what was ultimately 12 weeks.
Olson took to Twitter to share her frustrations with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and its unemployment website, CONNECT.
“I started posting my ‘daily diary of disappointment,'” Olson said, sharing screen shots of error pages, the site crashing and no deposits into her account. “I wanted it — public record that this was not working.”
A recently released report from Florida Inspector General found Deloitte, the company behind CONNECT, only tested the system for around 4,200 users, not 200,000 users at the same time like the state contract required.
DEO received more than 228,000 applications — more than the population of Tallahassee — the week ending March 28, last year. Those were the applications that made it through at that time.
Olson began tearing up when asked to think back on that time.
“I don’t know what I would have done without people such as yourself,” Olson said. “Who chose to speak for those of us who felt like we had no voice.”
Olson credited lawmakers like State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, and an online community of people she connected with, fighting for their unemployment benefits and each other, helping out others in any way they could.
Some of the help came through offering to help pay for groceries. Other times, help was found in making sure others felt heard.
“There’s been at least a dozen people who reached out to me who were suicidal. At least a dozen people,” Olson said. “This is the emotional burden that has been thrust upon us by the people who have chosen not to act.”
Governor Ron DeSantis is now recommending the state spend millions more on Florida’s unemployment system — $73.2 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars to upgrade CONNECT.
The move would improve the system, people like Olson once spent up to six hours a day, even more, trying to access.
“It took a year for the DEO to respond to an email that I sent for a PIN reset. A year,” Olson said, referencing a recent email she received from the agency.
Richard Ross first emailed the I-Team back in May, seven weeks after he was let go due to the pandemic, saying he and his wife were running low on money and that he really needed his unemployment checks.
After regaining employment, Ross said he was let go a second time due to COVID-19.
“I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be at home,” Ross said. “With a wife who’s disabled, and I’m the only person with an income and now I’m dependent on the state and the government, and they can’t even guarantee that I’m going to see my payments on time, who do you turn to? Really, who do you turn to?”
Ross, like tens of thousands of others over the last year, ended up turning to ABC Action News for help to get the attention of DEO.
Ross is receiving unemployment checks today. But he is worried about the unknowns ahead, navigating a system he said makes it just as difficult to get answers now as it did 12 months ago.
“You waste 2-3 hours of time to get no answer. It’s very, very frustrating,” Ross said.
You can find weekly updates from DEO here.