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Rural farm workers who struggled to get unemployment benefits say CONNECT is not equitable for all

DEO frustration
Posted at 9:04 AM, Jun 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-14 17:41:52-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla — By now, many are well aware of how difficult it can be to get unemployment benefits in Florida. There have been numerous stories about the antiquated CONNECT site and all of its flaws.

But farmers that live in rural parts of the state say they have had an even more difficult time and don’t believe access to the site is equitable for all.

As COVID 19 took over 2020, farming was a dangerous job to be in, according to Roberto Cruz, the Farmworker Advocacy Director at Florida Rural Legal Services.

“Usually when we’re talking about farmworkers, they are transported through a bus system with not a lot of social distancing between workers,” he said.

Cruz adds many of them weren’t required to wear masks either.

“If you were working in farms there was a high risk for you to get sick,” he said. “And as you get sick, your family members also get sick.”

It’s why a lot of workers in the community of Immokalee, a rural farming town about 166 miles South of Tampa, turned to the department of economic opportunity for financial help.

“Once they lose their employment, they not only lose their employment for themselves but for their whole family,” he said.

And homelessness became a real threat for many, according to Cruz. Yet, gaining access to the system proved incredibly difficult.

“They try to borrow from their friends, their family, they try to compensate through other means but in the end the failure of not being able to get unemployment compensation is critical,” he said.

Florida Rural Legal Services has heard from up to 100 people in the Haitian community and 20-25 in the Hispanic community who all struggle with language barriers and access to technology.

They don’t own computers, they don’t have access to computers so they rely on friends, family, or people they know,” Cruz said.

And even after they gathered the documents they need and finally got in front of a computer, Cruz says uploading the documents became a problem.

“For whatever reason, a perfectly scanned document that you can see in the monitor was not excepted by the system,” he said.

That led to locked accounts which ABC Action News has reported on for months now.

In February, State Senator Janet Cruz filed a bill that, if passed, would have required CONNECT to be completely mobile friendly. Right now, the DEO specifically states, “tablets, phones and other mobile devices are not currently supported by CONNECT.” That bill died in the Commerce and Tourism committee two weeks ago.

But, ISF, a company hired by the state to internally audit the CONNECT system back earlier this year suggests the state develop a mobile-friendly version of the new system so people can access CONNECT the same way they do on a computer.

The DEO says in terms of a new system, they are working on a plan and are telling folks to "stand by" on official details.

FRLS will hold an outreach event in Immokalee Thursday, June 17th at 11 am (106 S 2nd St, Immokalee, FL 34142) to help others who are dealing with unemployment issues and locked accounts. For more information call the Farmworkers hotline at 1-844-443-2769.