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Crist calls for new mobile app to handle Florida unemployment claims

Margie Manning

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Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa

A mobile app may be one solution to Florida’s beleaguered unemployment system, according to Rep. Charlie Crist.

The state’s online system has been overwhelmed with claims from people who have lost their jobs as a result of efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a briefing earlier this week. While the state made technology upgrades and brought in hundreds of temporary workers, Crist is suggesting an additional approach.

“I am sending a letter to the governor recommending to have a reputable technology company build an app that allows people to apply on their mobile device. I think that would make things much simpler and much better and I hope he takes the advice and does just that,” Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said during a video news conference with Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

The congressional representatives called on DeSantis, a Republican, to immediately use his emergency powers to expand unemployment benefits for all Floridians.

“Gov. DeSantis needs to exercise his emergency powers right away to lift the cap on the $275 a week benefit. Florida is the lowest in the country. He needs to act now to lengthen the number of weeks. Florida is the stingiest, tied with North Carolina, on the 12-week limitation,” Castor said.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which runs the reemployment assistance program, has said it does not have the authority to take those actions, Castor said. But DeSantis already has used emergency powers to waive requirements that people must wait one week, and must show they have applied for five jobs, before applying for unemployment benefits, she added.

“So what is stopping him now from lifting that cap on the amount of money that will go to unemployed workers, and what is stopping him from lengthening the number of weeks,” Castor said.

Crist, a former Florida governor between 2007 and 2011, cited his use of emergency powers to deal with the recession and the BP oil spill.

The design of the state’s online unemployment system was done by Deloitte under a contract issued in 2011, at the end of Crist’s term as Florida governor, according to a Tampa Bay Times news reporter on the video call. That reporter asked Crist what he knew about the contract and what he made of that.

“What I make of it now is we need to change it and get it right and make sure it works more efficiently and effectively for the people who are trying to get in, ” Crist said. “Every option should be on the table, and a company that can build an app that makes it easier and more accessible is exactly what we need to do now.”

In his letter, Crist said he has heard about a Clearwater waitress who hasn’t taken a table in three weeks and a bartender who is barely making rent “only by the grace of God and the St. Pete Virtual Tip Jar.”

“For them, time — and simplicity — is of the essence,” Crist wrote. “I encourage you to work with established software engineers to design a secure, mobile-based application, so Floridians can apply and submit supporting documents via their phone or emails. This will meet the people in need where they are at.”

The federal government is providing $600 a week for 16 weeks for the unemployed.

“This additional $600 is going trigger off at end of July and Florida will be stuck with these low benefits for the duration of a potentially lengthy recession unless the $600 is extended somehow,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, who joined Castor and Crist on the video call. “The $600 is an incredible thing right now, but Florida’s system needs to be fixed for the long haul.”

Evermore said the Florida unemployment system is actively designed to discourage workers from applying for benefits. In the first quarter of last year, only 8.3 percent of unemployment workers in Florida received benefits, the lowest in the U.S. for that quarter, and the annual rate of about 10 percent put Florida in the bottom two states.

Every $1 paid in unemployment benefits in the last recession results in $1.61 in local economic activity, Evermore said.

“Unemployment insurance matters to everyone across the state of Florida,” Castor said. “Our entire economy will recover at a faster rate if we have those dollars circulating throughout the economy. Any roadblock that Gov. DeSantis puts in the way is roadblock to our economic recovery eventually.”

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