Unemployed Florida

Orlando Sentinel December 6, 2009 by Jim Stratton

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Orlando Sentinel December 6, 2009 by Jim Stratton

Post  JJ in Florida on Mon Dec 07, 2009 4:16 am

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/state/os-jobless-benefits-extension-20091206,0,2736511.story

80,000 Floridians still waiting for jobless checks

Florida unemployment officials say it could be only a few days before checks are received, or it could be three weeks.

By Jim Stratton, Orlando Sentinel
December 6, 2009

The first checks from an emergency unemployment extension have started going out, but about 80,000 Floridians may not see any money for another two to three weeks.

Those people do not automatically qualify for the latest round of benefits, so they will have to apply online or by mail. Once they do — the application window opens this week — it's not clear how quickly payments will be processed.

Officials with Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation, the office that administers unemployment, have said checks could arrive in as little as a few days or as long as two to three weeks.

For some, any delay means they'll be scrambling for cash in the runup to Christmas. For others, the stakes are even higher.

Tommy Powers has been sleeping in his pickup for about a month, unable to find a job since being laid off as a dump-truck driver in April 2008. Unemployment benefits are his only income, and those ran out about a month ago.

Since then, he has been parked at a friend's house in Brooksville, spending nights in the truck bed with his Labrador retriever. There's not enough room in the house to stay inside, he said, but it's nice to be able to use the shower and hang out.

Powers, 54, said he has been in touch with Workforce Innovation staffers, he but still doesn't know if he'll be eligible for the latest benefits extension. Agency staffers said he'd be notified by mail, but so far nothing has shown up.

"I checked two days ago," he said, "and the only thing in there was a late notice for my [car] insurance."

The agency's Web site includes a feature that allows people to check their eligibility, but it tells them only if they may qualify. The maximum weekly benefit in Florida is $300.

In early November, President Barack Obama signed a bill extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. In Florida, where the unemployment rate is 11.2 percent, about 250,000 people are expected to be eligible for up to 20 additional weeks of payments.

Unemployed workers who exhausted all other benefits before Nov. 1 need to reapply to qualify for the extension. Those who lost or will lose benefits between Nov. 1 and Dec. 26 will automatically qualify.

When the bill became law, state officials estimated it would take four to six weeks to start checks flowing. The reason, Workforce Innovation officials said, was because the state's computer system needed to be reprogrammed to accommodate eligibility requirements handed down by the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Since we never know the final parameters of the legislation until it becomes law, we are unable to begin reprogramming our computers for that particular extension until then," the agency said in a statement. "One seemingly small change in the law's language, for example, can have a great impact on who is eligible and how the entire program is implemented."

Computer crush?

Complicating matters is the 35-year-old mainframe computer that is the foundation of the state's benefits-processing system. The unit is balky, fragile and "well beyond its useful life," according to a report from early this year. The last time it needed to accommodate a benefits extension, officials worried it might crash.

"It's such an antiquated system," an agency spokeswoman said in May, "there is some prayer involved."

Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, said though archaic technology no doubt slowed the process, she was skeptical of the agency's claim that it had to wait for the Department of Labor guidelines to be finalized before reprogramming.

Conti said most the language in the bill "was locked and loaded for four weeks" before final passage. And several states with similarly high unemployment — Michigan, New York and Oregon, for example — had checks in the mail before Florida.

"There were very few challenging details" on the extension, Conti said. "Agencies weren't starting in a vacuum."

Extra staff added

For months, Workforce Innovation has struggled to meet the demands of a record number of unemployed Floridians. Though it has added staff to handle the crush, clients continue to complain that calls often go unanswered and accurate information is difficult to find. About 660,000 people now receive benefits.

Orlando resident Barbara McManus exhausted her benefits in September, meaning she'll have to reapply to be eligible for the extension. She said she phoned Workforce Innovation on Wednesday to find out when she'd be notified about making an application, but the customer-service representative was unable to tell her.

"They told me they weren't really sure when it [the notice] would go out," said McManus, 77. "They said maybe next week."

McManus was laid off more than a year ago from a job selling manufactured homes. Today, she relies on unemployment and Social Security to pay the bills. It's not much, she said, but it's "more than a lot of people have right now."

McManus, who is widowed, is hoping the extension kicks in soon so she has a little money to buy a Christmas gift for her great-granddaughter.

"Without that, I'm not going to have anything for her," she said. "I know that."

Jim Stratton can be reached at jstratton@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5379.
Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel

JJ in Florida

Posts : 19
Join date : 2009-11-19

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