TALLAHASSEE -- When 65-year-old Raymond Togyer isn’t polishing his resume or cold calling potential employers, he’s spending hours trying, unsuccessfully, to navigate Florida’s labyrinthine unemployment compensation system.
Togyer — who was laid off for the first time in his adult life from a high-paying civil engineering job in June — has spent the last seven weeks sending and resending letters, staying on hold for hours and checking state websites, all to no avail.
He is one of hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Floridians flummoxed by what has become the most tightfisted unemployment compensation system in the nation.
“They told me that I was eligible and that I was going to be getting $275 a week,” said the Togyer, of Fort Lauderdale . “That was seven weeks ago. To this day I have not received anything. I’m draining my savings to pay my bills.”
Critics say Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s Legislature are behind a multipronged effort to restrict payments to eligible Floridians. A required 45-question “skills review” and an online-only application system have combined to restrict thousands of applicants from receiving aid. The U.S. Labor Department is investigating the complaints. A spokesman told the Herald/Times that Florida is cooperating with their inquiry, but they would not comment further.
Florida’s “recipiency rate” — the proportion of unemployed people who actually receive jobless benefits— is 16 percent, the country’s lowest. Only one in three applicants for unemployment compensation in Florida receives any money, ranking the state dead last among the 50 states.
“The cumulative impact of these changes is that the process of filing an initial claim for benefits is much more difficult for the average Floridian,” the National Employment Law Project wrote in a recent complaint to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
Frustrated applicants complain of misinformation on the state’s website and customer service phone lines that can be tied up for days on end.
A Herald/Times reporter tried several times over the course of a week to reach the state’s customer service department for jobless claims. Several times an automated message said, “We are currently experiencing high call volumes. An agent is not available at this time,” and then the line went dead.
On one occasion, the recorded voice said: “There are currently 399 calls in front of you.”
James Miller, a spokesperson for the Department of Economic Opportunity, said tied-up phone lines are not a problem, and the average hold time is about seven or eight minutes.
“We have no record of any delays or problems with distributing Reemployment Assistance payments to claimants,” he said. “We also are not aware of any issues with the 800 claim line.”
Togyer said he has spent nearly two months trying to get someone to tell him what is going on with his application for assistance.
Scott regularly touts the drop in the number of people receiving unemployment benefits as evidence that Florida’s economy is improving.
“The number of people on unemployment has gone from 568,000 to 320,000 people,” he said this month at a gathering of conservatives in Jacksonville.
What he doesn’t mention is federal data showing that more than 250,000 Floridians have been kicked out of the program during Scott’s tenure, because their benefits ran out.
Hundreds of thousands of additional applicants have been denied access to benefits, because they did not meet strict new requirements that Scott signed into law.