ORLANDO, Fla. — Six months after the State of Florida first started to shutter because of the global COVID-19 pandemic crisis, a slow return to a new normal is beginning.

While the area theme parks, restaurants, and businesses are open, they are operating at just a fraction that they were compared to the beginning of March.

What You Need To Know

  • Unemployment system leaves some jobless still waiting for help

  • Some Floridians had to spend savings, cash out 401Ks to pay bills 

  • Politicians who assisted constituents may get election boost

  • Some legislators say benefits need to be increased, too

Tens of thousands of tourism workers remain on extended furloughs, as thousands more are being laid off.

The initial shutdown led to a surge of layoffs and subsequent unemployment claims that overwhelmed a system that was long warned to have been plagued with problems.

“It was excruciating, really,” David Weimer said.

Weimer was laid off from his information technology (IT) job just before his wife was furloughed from her job at one of the area theme parks.

As frustrated Floridians spent months navigating a confusing and partially-functioning system, spent months waiting to be paid benefits to keep current on rent and bills, many fell behind.

“We were cashing out our 401K and savings, and whatever, to try to make ends meet and stay current on rent,” Weimer said.

The problems and perceived lack of care and attention from state leaders has cost some Florida residents, everything, they said.

Some Voters Intend to Switch Allegiances Based on Their Experiences

The problems of the state’s unemployment system could also come with political costs.

Weimer, a registered Republican who voted for Ron DeSantis for governor in 2018, said it’s a lost vote in 2022.

“I’m not going to vote for DeSantis when it comes back around, that’s already been my decision,” Weimer said.

A Republican governor’s loss is turning to a Democrat’s gain.

“One big difference in the 2020 election cycle is unemployment as an issue,” Florida State Representative Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) said. “I do believe that a person’s experience with the unemployment system or experience of their loved ones are going to impact how they vote this cycle.”

Eskamani is among a small group of lawmakers on the forefront of addressing claim concerns and system troubles, funneling thousands of individual case concerns straight to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

“I got a text from one of my Republican constituents; we helped her and her mom,” Eskamani said. “She saw my commercial on FOX News and said she’s voting for me.  We’re attracting folks who voted for Governor Ron DeSantis and many times people who are not going to vote for him again because of his mishandling.”

The office of Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg also fielded thousands of calls and complaints about the unemployment system.

“Our office is often the knot at the end of the rope,” Brandes said. “We wanted people to just hang on and have a constant voice they could turn to in time of crisis.”

Early on, Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) and state Senator Jason Pizzo (D-Miami) spent time in Tallahassee to direct Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s attention to the scores of individual complaint issues legislative offices were receiving statewide.

Brandes said he believes FL DEO has made vast strides in improving the system and address problems, adding he believes Governor Ron DeSantis  “. . .has done an incredible job turning this ship around, and I think Floridians recognize that.”

Floridians caught up in the system issues have given credit and blame to Republicans and Democrats.

Unemployment Likely to Be Focus of Election, Next Legislative Session

Members of the Florida Democratic Party are making the unemployment troubles a campaign issue, hoping to sway potential voters in November and build up to the next session of the Florida Legislative, which begins March 2021.

“I have no doubt unemployment will be one of the major issues of the legislative session,” Brandes said. “It first needs to begin with, we need to talk about the system that can handle the scale and volume of people we have.”

Democrats, however, plan to focus any unemployment legislative fight to include the benefits themselves.

At $275 per week with a 12-week maximum, Florida has among the lowest unemployment benefit structures in the nation.

“We need the people to be a part of the process in 2021, and it’s not just the partisan battle we’re going to face. It’s corporations who don’t want to change the system, so really it has to be a collective effort,” Eskamani (D-Orlando) said.

To date, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reports it has paid out more than $16 billion to more than 1.9 million eligible Floridians. The report shows at least 59,000 people are still waiting to be paid, marking the first time in months that fewer than 100,000 people were waiting for payments.

It’s still not clear how many Floridians have been paid 100 percent in full, as complaints continue about claims not being backdated and payments that are missing.