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Florida Jobless Claims Pour In As State Tries To Bolster System

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Nearly 170,000 first-time unemployment claims were filed last week in Florida, as the coronavirus-caused surge continues, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Florida's number - part of a second consecutive week of 6.6 million claims being filed nationwide - was down from the prior week. However, it represents a period before the state started to expand the use of paper applications because people were unable to file through the troubled online CONNECT unemployment system.

The Department of Labor report indicates the Florida number is driven by layoffs in a variety of sectors, as businesses shut down or scaled back amid social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus.

Geoff Luebkemann, senior vice president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said numbers are being compiled on the impact of COVID-19 on restaurants in the state. He anecdotally noted that an unidentified Florida-based chain about 10 days ago laid off all its hourly employees.

"They're running takeout and delivery-only now with just managers working seven days a week just to keep the lights on," Luebkemann said. "They're probably at a 90 percent sales decrease, 10 percent of what they normally do. And I'm hearing that pretty consistently."

The state, which was handling about 2,500 first-time unemployment claims a week as 2020 got underway, posted 169,885 initial non-seasonally adjusted jobless claims in the week ending April 4, according to the Labor Department.

The total is 58,599 fewer than in the prior week when Florida was listed as receiving a record 228,484 claims.

Over the past three weeks, more than 472,000 claims have been filed.

Among other large states, California posted 925,450 initial claims last week, followed by Georgia with 388,175, Michigan with 384,844, New York with 345,246, Texas with 313,832 and Ohio with 272,129.

Many of the Florida claims remain in a backlog that could take weeks to resolve. That has led to calls for benefit payments to be made retroactive to when claims were filed or when people lost their jobs, rather than upon approval of the claims.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the state's unemployment system, is set to release March unemployment numbers on April 17.

The Department of Labor release was accompanied by the Federal Reserve directing $2.3 trillion in relief loans for businesses and state and local governments. The central bank plan includes $500 billion in loans and $35 billion in credit protection for state and local governments. The plan will also supply financing to banks taking part in the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program and boost the Main Street Lending Program for small businesses.

Last week, Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, expressed hope that the state will receive billions of dollars from a federal stimulus package to keep it from having to make "significant" budget cuts during the upcoming fiscal year.

On Wednesday, the Department of Economic Opportunity introduced a mobile-friendly online application for unemployment assistance as it tries to address problems in the system.

In the past week, hundreds of call center operators have been rushed through training, paper applications were made available and dozens of computer servers were brought from Orlando to boost the online system's capacity.

Asked about the system on Thursday, DeSantis said: "there's definitely been progress."

"We're in a better position today than we were a week ago, and we need to continue to improve the system," DeSantis said.

As people realized the capacity of the system had increased, the demand grew and slowed the system Monday and Tuesday, he said.

DeSantis said numbers he saw yesterday showed the CONNECT system handled between 35,000 and 50,000 submissions, with a new parallel site that will have to be migrated into CONNECT drawing another 50,000 applications.

Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said Thursday that the upgrades are "not sufficient to meet the even larger influx of people trying to apply and getting booted from the system."

She added that many people are unsure the state agency will be able to process their applications in a timely manner.

"We've distributed over 3,000 paper applications, but people are still confused with the system and desperate for information," Stewart said in a prepared statement.

The state has temporarily waived several requirements for people seeking benefits, including one that individuals must reach out to five potential employers each week.

The changes by the state are expected to allow jobless contractors and other gig workers who may not qualify for Florida's assistance to be eligible for benefits through a federal stimulus. Florida's benefits are capped at $275 a week for 12 weeks, while the federal law is slated to provide $600 a week for 13 weeks.

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(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.)

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