PALM BEACH, Florida –On April 5, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity signed a $79.9 million contract with a Fort Walton Beach company to provide at least 1,000 operators to answer tens of thousands of calls from workers seeking unemployment benefits.
The DEO’s call center and claims processing system were overwhelmed. Weekly call volume had jumped from about 27,885 in mid-March to 864,313 by the end of the month and the average on-hold wait time had climbed to 400 minutes, more than 6.5 hours.
But three weeks later, many callers still cannot get through. Two of the three help numbers on DEO’s website were not taking calls on Tuesday morning. Instead, a recorded message suggested callers visit the DEO website – then thanked them for their “patience during this high-volume call time.”
A third number advised the wait time would be at least two hours.
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“Today I’ve called twice and the only thing I’m getting is the call won’t go through,” said Darlena Murray of Lake Wales. Murray, who was receiving unemployment before the coronavirus pandemic hit, now calls the DEO when she can during the day, at night and one weekends.
She has gotten through once.
“When I got in, it was a Saturday morning,” Murray said. They spoke for about 30 minutes. “She was very nice she said really wants to help people … but they’ve all been trained to give generic answers.”
Under the contract, the DEO agreed to provide initial training to 250 operators working for TelaForce LLC, the company contracted to handle the increased call volume, within five days of the contract being signed. The DEO also agreed to provide its own employees to assist operators in answering questions.
Telaforce agreed to handle up to 80% of the calls transferred to its call center from the DEO’s 11 toll-free lines. The goal was to decrease wait times and abandoned calls and provide quality answers to callers’ questions. TelaForce did not return a call or emails for comment.
Elsa Cantor of Delray Beach is still trying to get a person on the phone.
“You actually end up getting cut off. Even if you want to wait online, you get booted out,” said Cantor, whose work hours have been cut as a result of the pandemic. “There are just so many people dialing at once.”
Cantor’s mother, Marsha, has tried to help her daughter by waiting on hold or asking questions in the interactive help box on the bottom right side of the DEO home page.
“All it kept saying was, ‘Can you rephrase?’ and I would rephrase and it would say rephrase , rephrase, rephrase,” Marsha Cantor said. “After a whole day on the computer my eyes were crossed – there is no contact with them.”
According to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data, nearly 7 out of every 8 Floridians who managed to file claims during the three weeks from mid-March until early April were waiting to have them processed – the worst rate in the country.
In comparison, California and Texas saw about two-thirds of their claims backlogged, while New York, the country’s current coronavirus epicenter, saw about 30% of its claims still waiting, according to the analysis that looked at claims data submitted to the federal government, the AP reported.
The latest statistics from the Department of Labor, which covers the week that ended April 4, showed Florida was paying unemployment claims for just 1.1% of its covered workforce, compared with California’s 6.2%, Texas’s 3.1%, New York’s 7.6% and Rhode Island’s 11.9%, the country’s highest. The analysis is based on the Labor Department’s insured unemployment rate – a snapshot of the number of people receiving unemployment benefits, according to AP’s reporting.
An online claims dashboard unveiled by the DEO on April 20 underscores the deluge of claims and backlog. In the six weeks between March 15 and April 27, the DEO received a total of 1.9 million claims. The department determined 842,412 were unique claims –meaning they were not duplicates or otherwise invalid – and made payments to 392,051.
In Palm Beach County, 33,423 unemployed workers have filed for benefits – about 4.6% of the county’s labor force, according to the dashboard. The dashboard does not show how many of those workers received payments.
How much has the boost to DEO’s overwhelmed call center helped? It’s hard to tell.
The contract provides that TelaForce provide the DEO with daily and monthly statistical reports at the end of each month of the yearlong contract. A request by The Palm Beach Post for daily data from the DEO went unanswered.
How well the DEO is performing could be revealed in a court hearing on Friday. Three unemployed workers filed a lawsuit in Tallahassee on March 24 against the DEO, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Deloitte Consulting LLC, the tech firm contracted by the state to oversee the online filing system.
In it, all three workers claim they tried to call DEO multiple times both before and after the contract with TelaForce was signed. One worker’s call was finally answered after she waited five hours on hold. All three also had problems filing their claims online – including accessing the CONNECT payment site to check the status of their claims.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Coronavirus jobless claims still tough connection for Florida callers