TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – Amid growing frustration over the way Florida handles unemployment claims, the head of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity urged people to be patient, likening the coronavirus economic crisis to a hurricane.

“I want to ask our citizens to please be patient,” Secretary Ken Lawson told CBS4 in an interview Wednesday. “I understand their frustration. I’m going to hire at least a hundred more people to help the process.”

Tens of thousands of newly unemployed Floridians have found the state assistance program to be cumbersome at best and broken at worst. The website often crashes and people calling the agency directly can spend hours, if not days, on the phone trying to speak to an actual person.

Lawson said he is in the process of hiring a hundred new employees to handle the phone lines and is also working to improve the website.

“We are doing our best as an agency to be there and fill the void,” he said.

He argued no system could handle the sudden surge of claims. On Monday, 21,000 unemployment claims were filed. On Tuesday another 31,000 people applied. By way of comparison, only 5,000 people applied for benefits during the first week of March.

Critics, however, complain the current crisis reveals the fundamental flaws in the system, arguing that in 2011 then-Gov. Rick Scott overhauled the state’s unemployment program to deliberately make it less efficient so that the state wouldn’t have to pay benefits to those who need it.

A study by the National Employment Law Project, found that just 11% of those unemployed in Florida are receiving the benefits they are entitled to.

And those that do receive benefits are learning just how bad those benefits are, as Florida has arguably the worst benefits in the country. The most any person can receive is $275 a week. Only four states offer less money. The average across all 50 states is $464 a week.

And those benefits can only be collected for twelve weeks. Forty states allow their residents to keep those benefits for at least 26 weeks.

He said the Legislature set those benefits believing Florida’s economy was strong.

“By virtue of where we’ve been as a state economically the Florida Legislature decided on how much someone can receive, the number of weeks they receive benefits,” Lawson said. “So, the entire leadership structure realized we had a strong economy and is building this for temporary relief for someone that is out of work for a short period of time.

“I can’t speak to whether or not decisions made in the past we’re right or wrong,” Lawson continued. “I can only deal with the hand I have. And I’ll leave it to the Legislature to come back together and look at the after effect of what occurred to make the decisions about the benefits of the future and also extending the time period.”

Lawson confirmed there is at least $4 billion in the unemployment trust fund which could be used by the Legislature to increase those benefits.

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