MIAMI — After Ernst Virgile lost his job at the Fort Lauderdale airport, he sat up late at the computer in his living room night after night, trying to apply for unemployment, refreshing his browser again and again while his wife was sleeping.
He worried about their three children, and about making payments on the car and the house he and his wife, who also lost her job at the airport on the same day, worked so hard to buy in 2018. He sometimes got in the car and drove around by himself to be able to worry without having to hide it.
On April 3, after more than a week of trying, Mr. Virgile, 37, was finally able to get his claim lodged in Florida’s overwhelmed system. But he has yet to see a penny of unemployment compensation.
“My job is to not let them see,” he said of his children. “I have to stay strong. But I need to pay the water and electric. What am I going to do? We don’t have anything saved.”
Many states are scrambling to process an avalanche of jobless claims from the coronavirus crisis, struggling with overloaded websites and phones that don’t answer. But Florida has emerged as one of the slowest in the nation.
Hundreds of thousands of workers — many from Florida’s once-booming service industry — have been waiting for weeks for a check. It has taken some as long as that to file. As the website became unusable under the weight of the traffic, the state agreed this month to accept paper applications, a tacit acknowledgment that the system was all but broken. Florida’s breakdown became a national symbol of distress, when footage of a snaking line for those applications outside the public library in Hialeah, a blue-collar city outside Miami, went viral online.
The debacle has become an embarrassment for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who has had to repeatedly address the shortcomings. He called the system “cumbersome” last week and acknowledged that only 4 percent of 850,000 pending claims had been paid. He appointed an unemployment czar and signed executive orders waiving some requirements to ease the traffic on the website. The number of paid claims has slowly inched up.
But the fixes follow what experts say has been an intentional weakening of the unemployment system over a decade, aimed at reducing taxes on employers, that has left Florida particularly ill-equipped to handle the crisis. The state pays one of the lowest levels of benefit in the nation: The maximum is just $275 a week.
“Florida is a terrible state to be an unemployed person,” said Michele Evermore, an unemployment insurance expert at the National Employment Law Project in Washington. “It’s hard to get in. Once you do it’s easy to get disqualified. The benefit level is way below average. And that was before the crisis.”
Mr. DeSantis said that easing the benefits gridlock is his top priority, and has blamed the record number of claims for the breakdown. “Not nearly enough” applications have been processed, he said.
The governor inherited a website and benefit restrictions from his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, that saved the state and employees money — and kept the benefit rate low — when the economy was chugging along. But the system has proved unworkable in a crisis.
Data for precise national comparisons will not be out for some time. But as a measure of the state’s sluggishness, Ms. Evermore pointed out that its unemployment trust fund, a kind of bank account for unemployment funds, contains more money now than it did on March 1, while many other states are in danger of running out in a few weeks.
“Florida’s fund has gone up,” she said. “This means benefits aren’t getting to people in their time of need.”
The situation is urgent. State Representative Anna V. Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said her office has been trying to assist some 800 people from across the state who have reached out, desperate for help. She and her staff track each request on an Excel spreadsheet. Some contacts come in via Instagram message.
“Somebody called me this morning from Ormond Beach,” Ms. Eskamani said. “I got an email from someone in Panama City last night. We’re just trying to show up for everyone as best we can.”
Some people have received two weeks of benefits, Ms. Eskamani said. But those successful cases are few and far between.
A labor union representing South Florida hotel and casino workers, Unite Here Local 355, said 98 percent of its 7,000 members are out of work. “Virtually none of our members have received unemployment benefits,” said Wendi Walsh, the union’s secretary-treasurer.
Many have been locked out when they do not remember a PIN they created years ago. Calling operators to reset it results in long waits and disconnected phone calls.
José Garrido, 41, a former doorman at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, filed his application on March 22. But he has yet to receive any benefits.
“I’m short on rent,” said Mr. Garrido, a father of two. “Now I’m going to have to pay two months to FPL,” referring to Florida Power & Light. “Food is so much more expensive. I have two children. We are not going to have any health insurance.”
“I’m terrified,” he said.
The current unemployment system in Florida dates back to 2011, when the state legislature and then-Gov. Scott, a Republican, enacted a series of major changes. It was not long after the Great Recession, and the federal government had increased unemployment taxes on businesses. In response, the Republican-controlled legislature set out to reduce that benefit to be able to bring taxes back down.
Floridians, who once could file by phone, now had to file online, and faced a set of new electronic filing requirements that made the process of establishing eligibility one of the most onerous in the nation, Ms. Evermore said. The online system was hard to use, offered very little customer service and limited access for Spanish speakers. A cumbersome skills test had appeared. People had to prove, on a complicated online form, that they had applied to at least five jobs a week. Benefits went from 26 weeks to as few as 12.
The result was disastrous for unemployed Floridians. By 2015, just 39 percent of workers who applied for benefits ever received a first payment, compared to 68 percent nationally. That number hasn’t changed much, Ms. Evermore said. Even if someone is lucky enough to get a first payment, proving eligibility after that is difficult. The number of workers who were disqualified because they failed to prove they were actively seeking work more than tripled.
When the virus hit, Florida was at the bottom of the pack. Just 11 percent of unemployed Floridians were receiving unemployment insurance in 2019, compared with about 52 percent of unemployed people in Massachusetts, and 57 percent in New Jersey, according to data from the Department of Labor. Florida was the second-worst in the country last year by a hair, just after North Carolina.
Mr. DeSantis said last week that the state was slow to process claims before the virus.
“If you applied in January, I mean, it was a cumbersome process — it would take several weeks,” he said. “But when the unemployment rate is 3 percent, it’s a little bit different than what we have now.”
This week, Mr. DeSantis sounded more exasperated: “Look, this system, the fact that the state paid $77 million for this thing — it’s a jalopy.”
State Senator Joe Gruters of Sarasota, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, went further in a Twitter post earlier this month: “$77 million? Someone should go to jail over that.”
Mr. Scott, now the state’s junior senator, has taken the brunt of the criticism for the troubled system. Asked about Mr. DeSantis’s blunt assessment, a spokesman for Mr. Scott said in a statement on Wednesday that the former governor did not “have time for dumb political squabbles.” Mr. Scott has noted that Deloitte Consulting, the well-connected contractor hired to build the website, was chosen by his predecessor, Charlie Crist.
Mr. Scott ran on jobs after the recession, a period during which Florida paid so many claims that it wiped out the unemployment trust fund. The reforms he enacted were designed to adapt to economic conditions, raising overall payments when unemployment was high and jobs scarce but bringing them down in boom times.
To deal with the crush of applications that began in mid-March, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity installed 100 new servers and promised to reassign 2,000 employees from other state agencies to enter data from paper applications. The department built a makeshift portal to accommodate more applicants, but those applications must still be migrated to the original system.
Another portal, for gig workers and independent contractors who now qualify for federal benefits, is still pending. Secretary Jonathan R. Satter of the Department of Management Services, whom Mr. DeSantis tapped last week to oversee the unemployment morass, said on April 16 that the portal would debut in a week to 10 days.
Among the requirements waived by Mr. DeSantis is that applicants show they have been job hunting, because there are so few jobs to be had. But the website has not immediately reflected that and other changes. And the governor says he lacks the executive authority to raise the maximum benefit of $275 a week.
“We’re the most Scrooge-like state in the country on benefits,” said State Senator José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat. “So coming into the crisis, we already had this system that was the most anti-worker system there was.”
The Department of Economic Opportunity has not said if claims will be retroactive to the date of every applicant’s layoff. Claims filed early on in the crisis were excluded from a waiver that scrapped the “wait week” typically required before people can get their first benefit checks.
“We want to maximize the benefits for them,” said Tiffany Vause, a spokeswoman. “A lot of that is going to be done on a case-by-case basis.”
But for people waiting in their homes, going weeks without income, the delay is becoming dire. Esther Ortega, a laid-off stadium bartender, filed a paper application earlier this month after trying frantically for days to file online. She could have gotten it for free at the Hialeah public library but did not want to wait in line and possibly bring the virus home to her 11-year-old daughter and her aunt and stepfather, who are both in their 70s, so she paid to print it at a nearby store.
She has not seen any benefits yet.
“Every day at 6 a.m., believe me, I open my app on my phone to check my bank account,” said Ms. Ortega, who is 41 and became a widow in February. “It’s very frustrating. It’s just energy draining. Like, I don’t know what the governor is waiting for. I’m a single mother. Why are you holding on to the money?”
Patricia Mazzei reported from Miami, and Sabrina Tavernise from Washington. Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano contributed reporting from Washington.