State jobless claims rise as does anger among unemployed

Director of agency publicly apologizes amid record surge of applicants

SKY News
April 03, 2020 - 8:21 am
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a news conference in the Hard Rock Stadium parking lot in Miami Gardens, Florida.

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Unemployment claims in Florida skyrocketed Thursday — as did frustrations among the newly jobless who have struggled for weeks to file for financial relief amid the coronavirus outbreak that has crippled the state's economy and sidelined much of its workforce.

To alleviate the financial suffering, Gov. Ron DeSantis banned evictions and foreclosures for 45 days and ordered other state departments to lend employees to the Department of Economic Opportunity to help it answer phone calls and process unemployment applications. This came after the department's director took the unusual step of publicly apologizing for his agency's failures and the anguish wrought on thousands of Floridians unable to get unemployment benefits.

“From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” the agency's executive director, Ken Lawson, said during a teleconference hosted by two Democratic lawmakers. Lawson said his office received 1.5 million calls in the past week.

The number of people in Florida filing for unemployment benefits last week tripled from the previous week as the pandemic forced more counties and cities to issue stay-at-home orders. The Department of Labor reported Thursday that 227,000 Floridians initiated unemployment claims last week, up from 74,313 the previous week. Another 56,000 are expected this week as Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order that takes effect Friday.

In February, the last month before the virus started spreading in Florida, the state's unemployment rate was 2.8%, and 9 million Floridians were in the workforce — but then the state's theme parks and other tourist attractions closed earlier this month and a tsunami swept through the labor force in an attempt to curtail the viral outbreak. As of Thursday evening, the state had more than 9,000 had confirmed infections and 143 people had died.

Prompted by one lawmaker, Lawson said he would allow paper applications to be filed through the mail.

“Maybe sometimes we can get stuck on fixing the technology. What if we also did it the old-fashioned way?” the lawmaker, state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, said.

She said working people are being punished through no fault of their own by a “government not functioning and doing its job.”

Also Thursday, DeSantis defended his decision to exempt religious institutions from the statewide ban on large gatherings, saying he didn’t think that the government could constitutionally regulate houses of worship under the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause.

However, he said most churches, synagogues and others are using online video conferencing or limiting the number of people they allow inside and spreading out. A Tampa minister who had hundreds at his weekend services was arrested earlier this week for violating Hillsborough County’s ban on large gatherings, an ordinance overturned by DeSantis’ order.

“We got with the churches and synagogues early and told them that in times like this what you guys are doing is even more important, but we ask that you do it in a way that is conducive to this overall mission,” DeSantis said.




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