TAMPA, Fla. — Employees hired to help Florida's overwhelmed unemployment system are now struggling to collect benefits themselves, after the state ended its contract with Titan Technologies more than three weeks ahead of schedule.
A furloughed manager, Jonathan Branch, told the I-Team he's now speaking up for himself and others to sound the alarm that people are still in desperate need of the unemployment money they're owed.
“Sometimes you got to make noise to bring awareness to what’s actually happening, and if it takes someone who actually worked, who was in leadership, who can accurately describe what was going on to create some validity to the things that people are describing, then so be it," Branch said. "And I’m happy to do so."
Documents Branch shared with the I-Team confirm he began working for Titan in April 2020. A year later, he was promoted to a "team lead" managing supervisors and overseeing hundreds of call center agents.
"I had about 20-25 supervisors at any given time and upward of 400 to 600 agents," Branch said.
The Titan employees were all working under a $156 million contract for the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), to help Floridians navigate an unemployment system plagued with problems.
Branch told the I-Team that at the end of every shift, he would clear out the calls left waiting.
“I cleared out, some night 50, sometimes 100, of calls that had just been routed to — to nowhere. So, I mean that just gives you a small glimpse of what’s really happening," Branch said.
In June, DEO told ABC Action News it ended its contract with Titan several weeks early because of "performance issues."
Months later, Branch said he is among the out-of-work Titan employees who have yet to receive unemployment benefits.
"What happened was everybody, including my supervisors that reported to me, who did create an unemployment claim or filed one, they went straight to 'under review,'" Branch explained. "The claim hasn't gotten to the part where there's a monetary determination."
This means Branch has been stuck waiting, unable to claim weeks.
“Incredible to think that those kinds of decisions could not have been thought of before a contract like this would end, knowing the impact that would have been placed on those folks that would need to utilize the very same system we were helping maintain. It’s truly shocking, it doesn’t make any sense," Branch said.
When asked multiple times about any plan to help former Titan contract employees through the state's unemployment system, a DEO spokesperson would only say the department reviews claims were received and that "each claim is unique and takes time to process."
Branch, a father of six, said he's thankful he has another stream of income. But for others he managed, there is no backup.
“We’re talking about folks who are relying on this singular stream of income," Branch said.
One of the biggest outcries the I-Team continues to hear is from Floridians unable to get through to a person when calling DEO for help with their claim. Many are met with a recording, saying the phone lines are busy and that DEO is unable to offer a callback option. Then the line automatically hangs up.
People are left to just keep calling and hope they can eventually get through to someone who can help.
DEO has yet to answer how many employees are now staffed each day to answer the phone lines after it ended its contract with Titan.
“These things are certainly out of my control, but I can tell you whose control it isn’t out of — it’s certainly not out of the control of our state senators, our state governor, the people who are the elected executives of the state. They have to step in," Branch said, adding that DEO is "grossly overwhelmed. Grossly understaffed. So there’s enough reasoning to see that we need more help, we need more assistance from the folks that can make things happen."
UPDATE: After the I-Team met with Branch and contacted the state multiple times about his claim and others like it, Branch said he has now received all of the unemployment money he was owed. He said he sent a list of 21 other former Titan employees to DEO, who he knows have yet to receive an unemployment check, and was assured they will be helped.