ORLANDO, Fla. — Six months after the state’s initial pandemic shutdown order, causing hundreds of thousands of Floridians to be furloughed and laid off, many are complaining the state is still failing to provide full unemployment benefits as owed.
“We’re digging into how we can be more effective, more innovative,” said Dane Eagle, newly-appointed executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
What You Need To Know
- Dane Eagle appointed DEO executive director earlier this month
- Eagle says he will look at staffing, computer issues
- Also looking at bringing down claims processing time
- Watch Greg Angel's extended interview with Dane Eagle in the video player above
Eagle will become the third state executive to oversee the state’s problem-plagued unemployment system in six months.
Last Monday, Eagle replaced former DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson who recently resigned. This past summer Gov. Ron DeSantis transferred oversight of the unemployment system from Lawson to Florida Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.
Troubles about Florida’s unemployment system were no secret among state leadership circles. Previous audits revealed hundreds of issues and Politico was first to report that Lawson himself warned the Governor’s Office about problems in January 2019.
Months later, Spectrum News continues to receive complaints from frustrated Floridians about stalled claims and an inability to get through to state call centers.
Transitioning from State Representative to DEO executive director, Eagle told Spectrum News that he is looking to right the ship.
“We’re looking at the reemployment team and obviously I think it’s a situation where we are overworked and understaffed," he said. "So we want to supplement them with the right people who can access these claims and talk to these claimants and make sure they’re getting the answers they need."
“Then there’s the IT issue as well," Eagle said. "The CONNECT system — hindsight is 20/20 — we’ve seen that thing crash at the height of the demand and there are certain things, tweaks here and there, we have to keep making moving forward. And then making the bigger assessments on that system as a whole as we move forward.”
Eagle said he is looking short-term and long-term to ensure claims are processed more efficiently.
Complaints to Spectrum News continue to showcase individuals who have waited months to figure out why their claims have stalled, in modes of “hold,” “adjudication” or other processes.
Some say they still cannot get through to call centers, despite DEO officials saying in late August that call center operations are improving.
“Today a claimant’s average wait time to reach a Reemployment Assistance Customer Service Representative is less than 5 minutes, and wait times continue to decrease,” DEO officials said in an Aug. 29 press release.
Multiple contractors have laid off call center agents in recent weeks, as DEO says the overall call volume is going down: 2.1 million calls for the month of August, down from almost 13 million attempted calls in May.
DEO is also no longer receiving staff assistance from other state agencies, which DeSantis said it had been for a short time this summer.
“Honestly, more importantly, in the long run, we need good staff people internally who can really look at each of these claimants and help address their issues,” Eagle said. “Some of these are very complicated issues that need hands-on approach to be able to look into, and not all individuals in the call center can do that because it takes a lot of training, takes some good background, someone looking internally to address some of these claims.”
Eagle said his team is addressing concerns about the time it takes to process claims, admitting that it is at times far beyond the three to six week traditional time frame.
“My No. 1 goal is to get rid of the backlog, and I don’t mean to say that as get rid of it, but help claimants who are trying to get answers, who were deemed eligible for payments," he said. "That’s our number one goal to make sure they get answers and those who are eligible are getting money owed, that’s number one."
Eagle said he’s spoken with the vast majority of Republican and Democratic state lawmakers to address concerns from their offices and across the state.
Lawmakers, including Eagle, who was a state representative, have received thousands of calls and emails from Floridians with pleas for help.
Eagle’s appointment to the job was met with early skepticism because of a July 31 tweet.
Asked about those who question whether Eagle would be the best advocate for unemployed Floridians, he told Spectrum News his tweet was in response to his run for U.S. Congress.
“I was speaking to Congressional Democrats debating the CARES Act and I think all Americans, all Floridians want to go back to work, that is their number one goal, so I stand by that,” Eagle said. “I stand by Americans in trying to make sure we have jobs available and that is the number one goal, not just the goal of the agency, but of Florida, of our country, of all Americans, let’s get back to work.”
Eagle added “…but, for those who are out of work through no fault of their own, who are unemployed, who are seeking help from DEO, seeking help from the governor, our number one goal is to make sure those who are eligible are getting the money owed to them regardless.”