I’ve been going back and forth on whether I wanted to write about this. On the one hand, I want to keep this space pretty positive; however, on the other hand, I want to be able to help others who are going through some of the same issues I’ve had with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), the agency that handles unemployment benefits. I don’t want this to turn into a political debate about whether government assistance programs are needed or not. I just want to explain my experience while trying to participate in one of Florida’s assistance programs. Also, this post is super long. I thought about breaking it into two pieces, but I think it needs to stay in one piece.
I lost my job on September 16th. It was a Monday. I received my first payment from my unemployment benefits on January 13th, almost four months exactly from my job lost date. I want to start off by saying that I’m a college educated, intelligent woman and I had a really difficult time trying to problem-solve this situation. The reality is, there are people less educated and less intelligent than me who are trying to claim unemployment benefits. If I had so many issues and had a hard time seeking the help I needed, I can’t imagine that some of those people would ever be able to get a problem like I had solved. It scares me, on behalf of those in need, if any other government assistance program is anything like this one.
Everyone on unemployment relies on this money to help them out. I don’t care if you agree with assistance programs or not, but we earned this money. We paid into it when we were working. The system tells me how much I’m ultimately able to claim. I’m not sure about the extended benefits that have been in the news and how that works, but my payments will cap out at a certain point (I have about 5 months worth of benefits). Also, what I get paid in a week is about a quarter of what I was earning when I worked full time. Trust me, people aren’t really able to survive on unemployment benefits alone, no matter what the news outlets may tell you.
After I lost my job, I knew the drill. I needed to register for benefits as there is a holding week before you receive your first payment. I registered the following Tuesday. I had two phone calls from someone from the office making sure everything I reported was accurate and that I truly was eligible for my benefits. They called my former employer too; I think this is pretty much standard protocol. I did receive one week’s severance, so I was told that I wouldn’t get benefits for that week. “Fine by me,” I told them. Also, the first time the unemployment employee spoke to me, she told me that I had not yet filled out additional information on the workforce registration at the employflorida.com website and I wouldn’t qualify until I did that. I told her that I had no idea that I needed to do that, as I didn’t see instructions for it, but I would fill it out immediately. I didn’t want anything to delay my benefits.
I filled out that form a few hours after I received the phone call from the unemployment employee letting me know that was the only thing my application was missing. I think this all occurred about two weeks after I lost my job and I had already filed one claim. Because I hadn’t filled out that form, those two weeks wouldn’t qualify. “Fine,” I told myself. No big deal, it was filled out now so we were all good. Little did I know, this form was going to be the source of all my problems for the next 3 months.
Right after all of this happened, I received a letter in the mail from the DEO stating that they were changing their system over to a new program and listing the dates I could claim once it was up any running. This happened in early October. Because of how my claimed weeks were structured (you claim 2 weeks at a time, so you claim twice a month), it didn’t cause a disruption in my claiming schedule. I did have to switch to their new website, which looked a lot like their old one and didn’t seem any harder or easier to navigate; it just seemed like a new URL.
So I claimed my next set of weeks. Since I hadn’t been paid yet, I wasn’t sure when I was going to get the payment. I kept checking back periodically on the website to see if anything was wrong. I finally found a section that said those weeks were disqualified and that I needed to check my important notices on the home page for why that was. However, on the home page, I found that there were no important notices for me.
Now I started to panic. Was I not approved to receive benefits? When I was first out of college I was wrongly terminated from a job and had to receive unemployment then. With that position, they claimed I was fired for severe misconduct and I had to appeal—since, according to me, I was fired without cause. Severe misconduct will not qualify you for benefits, which that company knew. I ended up having to go through a phone trial after several steps in an appeal process. It was one of the hardest things I had to do thus far as I had to listen to my former employers make up a story that painted me in such a horrible light that I wanted to cry. However, the incidents didn’t add up, and the appeals board even questioned them about why I didn’t get warnings before termination or why I didn’t get termination immediately for such bad conduct. I ended up wining the appeal. I wondered if my most recent claim was dealing with the same situation. Was I denied my claim altogether but it wasn’t made clear to me?
I checked that area, and it seemed everything was in order. There wasn’t anything to appeal. No, just my payments are saying “disqualified,” not the entire claim, I was very confused. So I attempted to call the 1-800 number to speak to someone about my issue. This led me to a string of prerecorded messages that I would have to sort through before I was given the option to speak to a live person. After finally pressing the option to speak to a representative, I was sent to a prerecorded message that said, “All lines are currently busy, please hang up and try again later.” There was no option to wait until someone could talk to me, or an option to leave a message. After that prerecorded message, it would just hang up the line. I tried dozens of times over the next week or two trying to resolve the issue. I never got a person on the phone once.
Since I couldn’t get a hold of someone via the phone, after a week, I decided to try to speak to someone in person. There are “One-stop career centers” all over Florida to assist those with unemployment claims. I called the closest one to me to make sure they could deal with my problem before I drove all the way over. This didn’t seem to be any more helpful. While they had a phone option for assistance with unemployment claims, the prerecorded voice on that option told me to hang up and call the same 1-800 number I’d already been unsuccessful with.
I tried different options until I finally got someone on the phone. An unhappy employee answered and I tried to explain my situation to her to see if it was something they could even help with. She stopped me short and told me that I should come in to explain my problem. I hopped right into the car and headed over to the career center.
I had been by this place a dozen times; it’s in a poorer area of town, and walking inside felt like a wave of depression and hopelessness washed over the place. I walked up to the lady at the front desk (definitely the unhappy employee I had spoken to earlier in the day) and told her I had called about a half hour before. She cut me off and handed me a green card and told me to follow the hallway to the claims assistant area.
I swear this was the longest hallway of my entire life. I slowly weaved my way through it, sometimes getting confused about what direction to go next. Any time an employee saw me, clutching my lime green card, they would point unenthusiastically in the direction I needed to go. The walk probably only took a minute, but felt like it took an hour. I finally found the door I was looking for and walked in.
I was greeted by the first cheerful employee I had encountered in the place. She looked around my age, maybe younger. I was cautiously optimistic that someone would be able to help me. Finally, somebody would listen to my issue! She asked if I was here “to claim weeks or if I was here to sign up for benefits.” I told her “neither,” that I was having an issue with my already established claim. I took out my phone so I could show her screenshots of the issue I was having. I then tried to explain my problem to her while showing her the messages I was getting on my screen. She looked at it for a minute and told me that she couldn’t help me with my problem; the only thing I could do was call the 1-800 number and they could walk me through my problem.
That damned 1-800 number again!
I walked back through the long hallway deflated. In all, I was only there for 5 minutes total, but with the half hour drive there and back, it was a complete waste of my time.
I continued to call the 1-800 number multiple times a day. It was on my speed-dial. I would call at different times of the day trying to get ahold of somebody, anybody. During this time, I claimed another set of weeks to see if the first try was just a fluke. Those weeks got disqualified again. So I stopped claiming weeks; I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to get that benefit until I got my issue resolved. After two cycles of this, my claim became inactive.
Frustrated, I opened my claim again. Luckily, it’s an easy process with no information lost. When my claim opened back up again it told me that I needed to complete my workforce registration on the Employ Florida website. Yes the same one that employee had told me about almost two months prior. The one I had already filled out. While I was annoyed by the ordeal, at least I was finally being told what was wrong with my claim. At least now I had something to fix.
I immediately clicked over to the site and went through all the steps of filling out the form again. Thinking back now, I can’t even remember if I added anything to the site as I had already filled out the information. But I clicked through everything until it told me I was absolutely without a doubt finished. I was then led back to the main unemployment site. The site told me to wait 24 hours to make sure the paperwork went through before I claimed my weeks again. This all happened on November 16th.
I was so happy. There was obviously a glitch in the system, and reactivating my claim finally let me know what that glitch was. It seemed that the whole ordeal was almost over. The next day I went back and claimed my weeks. Again, I kept checking my bank account to see when I would receive payment. After a week I became concerned when I didn’t see the payment in my account. I went back to the unemployment website and saw that one word on each week claimed that I was dreading: “disqualified.”
Again, it told me to check my important notices but there was nothing there—just a note telling me when I could claim again. I was so frustrated I wanted to cry. At this point I had no idea what else to do. I was literally running into a dead end. I looked everywhere I could to see if there was another help line or an email address I could email. I think this was about the time I found the DEO Facebook page. Back in October, when they had switched the system, they had a couple of friendly posts to help those filing claims with the new system, but besides those few posts, it was radio silence from them. What I did find though, were dozens of other people completely unsatisfied with the new system. It seemed that I was not the only one who wasn’t getting her unemployment benefits.
Around this time, I had a conversation with my in-laws about the whole ordeal. My father-in-law suggested going to my state representative for help. I hadn’t thought about doing that before, but it definitely seemed liked the next step I needed to take. So I looked up my state representative. I was given the choice between a state congressman and state senator. Not sure which one to really pick, I decided to go with the Representative because I figured he would be easier to get a hold of.
I want to break from my story here to say that I am so thankful for the help of Representative Ricardo Rangel’s office. I spoke mostly with his executive assistant Jennifer, but she got me in contact with the right people and followed up on my inquiry quickly. If you’re ever having issues with problems in your state with anything, definitely use your resources of state level government. They are there to help you with problems exactly like I was going through.
I wrote an email to the office and received response within an hour. They told me that they would contact their liaison at the DEO and someone would get in touch with me soon. That was on the morning of December 5th. At 6pm that evening, I received a phone call from that 1-800 number I had been trying to reach someone at for months.
I spoke with a woman named Tatiana. She was nice enough and definitely trying to help me. Do you know the feeling when you are so frustrated about a situation that has been out of your control that you just want to lash out at whoever is the first person that crosses your path that has anything to do with the problem? Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt about Tatiana (through no fault of her own). I had to repeat “don’t get mad and yell at her. She is here to help you” over and over in my head. I tried my best, but I know I got a little disgruntled with her.
Why did I get disgruntled? Because that form was the problem holding up the entire claim. While Tatiana was nice and helpful, she tried to make it seem like I had caused the problem by not filling out the form properly. When I asked her why I never got a notice that the form wasn’t filled out properly in the first place, I never got an answer. I was told that my second attempt, on November 16, showed that my form was filled out completely and there were no further steps I needed to take to rectify anything. She just told me that I needed to continue to claim my weeks because they would reverse everything from 11/16 onward once the form had been pushed through the system. I asked her why it hadn’t gotten processed yet as it has already been two weeks… no answer. I then asked how long from that phonecall it would be until I could expect my claim, and she told me “pretty quickly” (without a solid timeline) because I was now on a “priority list.”
I accepted Tatiana’s answers because there was nothing else I could really do. She was a representative for the department after all. She wasn’t going to admit any wrongdoing to me, and that was that. I wanted to get her contact information to follow up with her, but none was given to me. Instead, she told me that she would call me back soon to follow up once everything had made its way through the system. Grateful for any bit of help, I thanked Tatiana profusely and hung up the phone.
Looking back on it, I felt like an abused victim: “thankful” that I hadn’t been hit, instead of sincerely being thankful for a good service given to me. However, because that was the first human I had spoken to that could actually help me with something in over two months, I was happy for the contact and grateful for any words she was willing to speak to me. I’m pretty sure her job is to just calm claimants down under the guise of “help.”
For the next month, absolutely nothing got solved regarding my claim.
The next business day, the congressman’s office followed up with me with a phonecall. Jennifer, the executive assistance, asked me if everything had been resolved. I told her that I wasn’t sure, because I was supposed to receive a follow up from Tatiana at some point in the near future. Jennifer told me that if I needed anything else to please contact them and they would try to help in any way they could.
December became very busy. With the holidays and our home renovations in full swing, I got very busy. While I thought I had claimed my weeks in early December, I guess I didn’t. So, when I logged back on to the site on January 9th to check on my claim status (because I still hadn’t received any payment) and claim my most recent weeks, my claim was once again closed.
Annoyed with myself, I reopened my claim once again. The very first thing that popped up at the top of my screen in the important notices tab was that I had not yet completed the workforce registration form. At this point I was furious. I didn’t care that I had lost those weeks to claim in December (if your account closes, you apparently lose the opportunity to claim those weeks).
What I was mad about is that it had been over a month since I had heard from Tatiana or anyone at the DEO and I was pretty sure a month was not “pretty fast” even by government standards to process a form that goes through an electronic submission. Plus, it had been almost two months since I had actually filled out the form. I checked my payment status to make sure it still said I was “disqualified” regarding my claimed weeks: I was. Not being able to contact Tatiana directly, I found my email from Jennifer at the congressman’s office and wrote a long frustrated email to her.
Within an hour, I received a phone call from Tatiana saying that my paperwork had finally gone through. Wow, what a coincidence! This was a Thursday and she told me that I should see my back payments by Friday. I asked if it would be direct deposited or if I would have it mailed to me. She said it would be direct deposited. I told her that the system told me that I needed to fill the form out again, and she assured me that was a mistake and it was not needed.
I didn’t receive my payment on Friday, but by Monday I had, and the notice about resubmitting the workforce registration form had disappeared. Unfortunately, because of the lack of communication and the glitch in the system, I didn’t receive any payment for my claims before 11/16. Then, because I didn’t claim properly in December, I wouldn’t get any of those claims either. So, when it came down to it, at this time, I was only eligible for only two weeks of payment. And only one of those weeks were paid because the first week was acting as that “waiting week” that you have to wait when you apply for unemployment—even though I had waited almost 4 months already.
One week’s payment in four months. That’s it. Now, I’ll be able to claim more weeks moving forward (without problems, hopefully) and we have been able to get through the past few months without that money, so it will be more helpful moving forward than needing a huge back payment right now. However, I shouldn’t have had to struggle this much with my claim in the first place.
I’m now in the process of getting a formal complaint filed against the Department of Economic Opportunity. I’m not sure what good this will do, but hopefully if I and enough others say something it will eventually help. If there’s anything that ever comes of it, I’ll write a follow up post here.
Anyway, that’s my story. I wanted to lay the whole thing out so others who are having similar issues with the system might mimic my solutions. It has been very difficult, and I’ve had to be extremely persistent. I can’t speak to those who have contacted the governor’s office for help, but if you can’t get through to that 1-800 number after a few days, bypass everything else and contact your state representative or state senator. You can find that person’s information by entering your zip code at http://www.flsenate.gov/Senators/Find and it should get you in contact with both.
Fortunately, I’ve been lucky, as I was able to weather the storm until I could get everything resolved—but I know others out there don’t have the resources to get them through a four month wait. Nobody should have to wait that long to get benefits they deserve and have already earned (paid for) in the first place. I hope my experience will help others with similar issues. The economic climate is too rough right now to not get some needed assistance from our government.
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading. This process has been so frustrating and I hope my story can help others. I did find an article from a few days ago from statescoop.com outlining what the DEO plans to do to rectify issues such as mine. The new website switch is what is causing these problems in the unemployment system. You can read the entire story here.
Please let me know if the comments below if you have had issues with Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity. Were you able to resolve your issues? Or are you still trying to resolve them?