TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Labor leaders called Thursday for Gov. Ron DeSantis overhaul an unemployment claims system that has stymied thousands of newly jobless Floridians from applying for benefits amid the coronavirus crisis.

  • Call for broad reforms in letter to Gov. DeSantis
  • Urge rollback of restrictions implemented by former Gov. Scott
  • More Florida Government stories

As the state's Department of Economic Opportunity grapples with an influx of claims that is roughly 11 times higher than normal, applicants have complained of repeatedly calling the department's unemployment hotline, only to be told by an automated recording to "hang up and try again later."

Others who have attempted to file claims through the state's CONNECT website report being locked out for lack of a valid PIN number.

​In a letter to DeSantis, the labor leaders called for broad reforms stretching beyond just increasing staffing levels at Florida's unemployment offices. Specifically, they urged a rollback of a series of restrictions implemented by the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott in 2011.

Those restrictions included capping weekly benefits at $275 per week and cutting the duration of benefits in half, from 26 to 12 weeks.​ The Scott administration also shifted the burden of proof in appeals of benefit eligibility from employers to employees, sharply limiting the number of jobless Floridians who could access unemployment compensation.

"People are going to be suffering under the consequences of this for a very long time to come, and it just seems so punishing and really is very telling about why we have the system that we have today in Florida under Rick Scott, and this is where Gov. DeSantis can show himself to be better than that and to fix a broken system," said Wendi Walsh of UNITE HERE, an AFL-CIO affiliate.

​Scott, a former health care executive, took office in 2011 determined to reduce the size of state government. While government spending increased significantly during his two terms, he was largely successful in shrinking the size of Florida's welfare safety net, including unemployment compensation.

Now Florida's junior U.S. senator, Scott was among a handful of Senate Republicans who attempted to defeat a provision in the new $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that would allow some formerly low-wage hourly employees to receive more money in unemployment benefits than they made at the jobs they've just lost.

"We can't pay people more to not work than to work," Scott said on the Senate floor Wednesday night.

Responding to Scott's remark, Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO told reporters "those were the same sort of cruel, mean comments that Rick Scott made when he was governor and gutted the unemployment system."

While DeSantis hasn't discussed scrapping the Scott reforms, he is likely to satisfy at least one of the the labor leaders' demands: increased staffing at DEO.

"The agency was overstaffed just a few weeks ago, probably, from what the claims were," the governor told reporters this week. "Now we're in a different situation, so I've given (DEO Director Ken Lawson) the go-ahead to ramp things up. This is a very sudden increase."

But with the number of Florida ​unemployment claims stemming from the coronavirus crisis expected to be higher than those filed during the Great Recession, reformers could ​enjoy a groundswell of public support likely to influence DeSantis to do more.

"Finally, everyone is paying attention," Walsh said. "Everyone is feeling the ramifications of this all at the same time, and it is the same crisis that any individual who has been laid off has experienced, but they've experienced it alone. And now, for the first time, there are hundreds of thousands of workers in the state of Florida who are crying for help."