TAMPA, Fla. — A furloughed manager with Titan Technologies, who oversaw hundreds of call center employees hired to help out-of-work Floridians navigate a state unemployment system riddled with problems, says the company had to launch a separate phone line to direct callers who threatened to harm or kill themselves.
The calls, Jonathan Branch said, continued to increase.
“The last two months of the contract, we had more threat calls in those last two months than we had the previous eight months combined," Branch told the ABC Action News I-Team. “It got to the point where there were two to three per week as opposed to two or three in a month. Hence the need to create an actual team to handle those specific kinds of calls.”
The calls prompted the creation of what Branch called a "threat line."
“I have email exchanges I can thoroughly recollect where the supervisors did not know what to do in those situations. They were overwhelmed, they were flustered, they didn’t want to be on the calls anymore. Some of them had to take a couple of hours off, some of them asked to take the rest of the day off because of being on the line, hearing someone threaten to kill themselves because they can’t get basic necessities. That is very scary," Branch said.
In an email, a DEO spokesperson told the I-Team, "The Department has always had procedures in place for calls when customers threaten the wellbeing of themselves or others. Handling threatening phone calls is included in training for all customer service representatives and contracted staff. We take those calls very seriously and staff are trained to handle these calls for everyone’s safety and wellbeing. These calls are not routed to anyone outside of the Department."
The I-Team contacted Titan multiples times to confirm the details of the "threat line" but has not yet heard back.
What is clear, is that the end of DEO's contract with Titan did not mark the end of an urgent need for Floridians to access their unemployment benefits.
“What we are seeing now is people almost, in some cases giving up on the system itself, which is probably why it appears that there is more of a recovery than there is," Branch said. "I was so surprised they ended the contract in the first place. I couldn't understand."
Branch said desperate calls, texts and voicemails he's been receiving from former Titan employees who reported to him, now pleading for answers to be able to collect their own unemployment, is what has pushed him to speak out.
“These folks in my position, we were paid $26 bucks an hour to essentially be good therapists, to be good financial — to be good advisors, essentially," Branch said. "The least we can do is make sure that the folks who are in a bad situation get what they need. That's the least we can do."
ABC Action News has now sent more than 30,000 names to DEO, in an effort to help get Floridians to get the unemployment benefits they are owed.
Help is always available. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is open 24/7 and its' free. Just call 211 to speak confidentially to someone who can help or call the "National Suicide Prevention Lifeline" at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
If you have a story you'd like the I-Team to investigate, email email@example.com