TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Florida recorded more than 900,000 first-time unemployment claims during the past two weeks, while fewer than 50 percent of people put out of work since mid-March have received assistance from the state.

As the state Department of Economic Opportunity races to reduce a sizable backlog of claims amid the coronavirus pandemic, Florida drew 432,465 first-time claims during the week ending April 25, according to numbers supplied to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The state, which on its website reports more than 2 million claims between March 15 and Wednesday, advised the federal agency it received 506,670 new claims during the week ending April 18.

As of Wednesday, the state agency had deemed 916,002 claims as “unique,” as some people file duplicate claims. State weekly payments of up to $275 had gone out to 416,683 people, or 45.5 percent of the confirmed unique claims.

About 40 percent of applicants have been found ineligible for state assistance and were told to reapply.

The state’s CONNECT online unemployment system has come under heavy criticism and is now unavailable nightly for all but new claims as the state conducts maintenance and works on the backlog of claims. The system this week became available for people who are ineligible for state benefits but can file for $600 weekly payments under a federal assistance program.

The Florida Democratic Party called the unemployment numbers “alarming” and warned that the state’s treatment of people who have lost jobs increases the chance Florida will “fall into an economic depression.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis “continues to ignore the need to have the Legislature convene to expand unemployment benefits and lift arcane restrictions,” Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a prepared statement. “Unemployment insurance is one of the most important safeguards to prevent economic collapse.”

In an effort to start reviving the economy, DeSantis on Wednesday announced a soft reopening of many businesses beginning Monday. The plan, for example, will allow restaurants to use outdoor seating and to open inside at 25 percent occupancy.

“The problems that will result if you have protracted, massive unemployment are significant in the realm of health, in the realm of social costs and of course in the realm of economic activity,” DeSantis said.

Venues such as theme parks and movie theaters will remain closed. Also, the state is continuing to review how best to address businesses such as barber shops where there is more personal contact between workers and customers.

Florida is one of four states submitting their own numbers to the U.S. Department of Labor for the weekly federal estimates. Meanwhile, the state Department of Economic Opportunity has started to download batches of information during off-peak hours from large companies, such as Disney, that have stopped paying employees because of shutdowns.

Florida’s March unemployment rate was listed at 4.3 percent, but that only reflected the initial impact of the pandemic on the state’s economy in mid-March. The unemployment rate had been 2.8 percent in February.

Florida won’t release an April unemployment rate until May 22.

Nationally, 27.9 million new claims have been filed since mid-March.

The Department of Labor announced 3.8 million new claims last week, a sixth consecutive week of more than 3 million new claims. The numbers have been declining weekly since a peak of 6.87 million claims during the week ending March 28.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected the national unemployment rate could peak at 16 percent this quarter.

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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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