Laura Layden, Fort Myers News-Press Published 6:00 a.m. ET May 7, 2020

Mark Acker and Mike Kafalas are local singers and entertainers who have applied for unemployment since they are out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. They, like many others, have been denied and told they may have to reapply. Fort Myers News-Press

When state Rep. Spencer Roach appeared on a local TV station and gave out his cell phone number for anyone to call for help navigating through Florida’s broken unemployment system, he never imagined just how many calls he’d get.

The first week, he received more than 200 calls for help. The second week the volume more than doubled.

The calls — and complaints — just keep on coming. His voicemail is still backed up, but Roach, R-North Fort Myers, said he’s determined to get to all of them and to help as many workers as he can get the benefits they’re entitled to after losing their jobs and livelihoods to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The volume is great,” he said. “The need is great. The level of frustration people are encountering is just unbelievable.”
Spencer RoachBuy Photo

Spencer Roach (Photo: Cory O’Donnell/News-Press)

Many of the calls he’s received are from blue-collar workers living in his own district, which includes Lehigh Acres, as well as North Fort Myers. Of the four House districts in Lee County, his is the least affluent — and it has the highest number of non-English speakers, who because of language barriers can find it even more difficult to deal with the state’s already chaotic unemployment system.

Many residents in the area Roach represents lived in poverty before the pandemic struck. Now, it’s so much worse for many of them, who have been forced out of work and left to survive with little to no income for a month or longer because they’ve had difficulty collecting unemployment assistance from the state — or the federal government.

Asked to share their experiences in applying for unemployment assistance via Facebook, frustrated readers of the Naples Daily News and The News-Press listed a host of problems from website crashes and unanswered calls to conflicting information and inaction on their claims.

Greg Baldia, a beverage manager at Cielo Restaurant on Sanibel, filed for unemployment assistance more than six weeks ago and his application was still “pending” last week, he shared, leaving him in the same boat as so many others are around the state.

“No answer and kicked out of the site daily. I emailed my Florida House Rep. for help but have heard nothing,” he added.

Airboat Captain Johnny Markley talks about his struggles after losing his job due to the coronavirus shutdown at his home in Golden Gate Estates on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 Naples Daily News

Floridians have created their own Facebook groups to air their gripes, share advice and offer support. One such group Florida Unemployment Info Share Covid-19 can be found here: facebook.com/groups/223392148733338/

On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for an investigation into the online unemployment system, known as CONNECT, which he’s described as a “jalopy” and a “clunker.”

The launch of a formal investigation came as welcome news to many, including Roach.

“I don’t know anyone that can defend the system we have in place,” he said. “It’s terrible. It’s a disaster. No one can argue with that.”

“I don’t know anyone that can defend the system we have in place. It’s terrible. It’s a disaster. No one can argue with that.”
Spencer Roach

He’s received calls from destitute residents who are down to $10 or less in their bank accounts.

“It is absolutely heartbreaking and taking these calls day after day, it does take an emotional toll on you,” Roach said.

More than one caller has told him they’ve spent more than 40 hours in a week just trying to log in to the website, with no such luck, including one who tried logging in 2,000 times in 48 hours to no avail.

“As a corollary to that, they have a 1-800 number. There are hundreds of people who haven’t been able to get anybody on that number,” Roach said.

He’s heard from others who sent in paper applications because the website has been so messed up, but never got a confirmation that the state received them, let alone processed them.

A little more human

If one thing is clear, there’s a need for more “human-to-human contact” in the state’s problem-riddled unemployment system, besides all the technical issues and glitches, Roach said.

“For many it’s the darkest hour of their adult lives and they’re struggling with how to feed their children,” he said.

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State representatives and senators have been deluged by calls and emails from frustrated and angry residents all over the state who need help — and want answers.

Mark Acker, who lives in North Fort Myers, said he feels fortunate to have Roach as his state representative. Roach, he said, has returned his calls and offered a listening ear and helping hand in his time of need.

Mark Acker, right, and Mike Kafalas are local singers and entertainers who have applied for unemployment since they are out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. They, like many others, have been denied and told they may have to reapply. They are surviving thanks to MarkÕs disability and the kindness of their landlord. (Photo: Amanda Inscore/The News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)

“He’s been unbelievable,” Acker said. “He’s a state representative. He’s got a lot of things on his mind, but always calls us back.”

Acker, 64, receives disability benefits because he’s blind, but it’s barely enough for him to get by, so he does singing gigs with his half brother and caretaker, Mike Kafalas, 61. Their two-man Oldies group goes by the name Hatboys, but they haven’t been able to perform since Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs in Florida to close on March 17, which he then followed with a stricter mandate that limited restaurants to takeout and delivery only a few days later.
Mark Acker, left, and Mike Kafalas are local singers and entertainers who have applied for unemployment since they are out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. They, like many others, have been denied and told they may have to reapply. They are surviving thanks to Mark’s disability and the kindness of their landlord.

Mark Acker, left, and Mike Kafalas are local singers and entertainers who have applied for unemployment since they are out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic. They, like many others, have been denied and told they may have to reapply. They are surviving thanks to Mark’s disability and the kindness of their landlord. (Photo: Amanda Inscore/The News-Press USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)

Acker and Kafalas lost out on revenue from 35 shows that got canceled due to closures and other business restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus in Florida.

“It’s a lot of money,” Acker said.

Even now, with businesses starting to reopen, restaurants can only seat 25% of their normal occupancy indoors, so they don’t need entertainers to try to fill them up with customers — and probably won’t for a while longer, he said.

Kafalas had the task of filing claims for himself and his brother, so he’s doubly frustrated by the process. At this point, he said, he’s not sure if the financial relief they appear to be entitled to will ever come.

“We have been sitting here two months,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.Try just sitting for two months and your money disappears. The money you saved.”

Here’s why there’s a backlog of claims for unemployment and why it’s only getting worse. USA TODAY

Struggling to survive

Acker and Kafalas both agreed they feel fortunate to have savings to fall back on. They sympathize with those who don’t, especially single moms who’ve lost their only source of income and must still find a way to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

Trying to help gig workers, such as Kafalas and Acker, and others who are self-employed get the money they’re rightfully entitled to and owed has been particularly frustrating, Roach said, as Florida’s outmoded system was unprepared to deal with these kinds of claims, which the federal government has promised to fully fund under the CARES Act.

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To receive the federal money, workers must first be found eligible through the state’s unemployment system.

Self-employed workers aren’t the only ones who have been told to reapply for benefits through the state.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which manages the state’s unemployment system, recently announced anyone who applied before April 5, including those who file W-2 and 1099 tax forms, and got denied needed to refile at FloridaJobs.org.

Those who applied for benefits on or after April 5 and were deemed ineligible for benefits will receive additional application information from the DEO.

As of May 3, DEO had paid 478,666 claimants a total of more than $979 million. At that point, more than 1.7 million claims had been submitted, with less than 736,000 of them processed.

There are more than 16,000 claimants in Lee County along with nearly 7,700 in neighboring Collier County.

Miami-Dade County has the most applicants — at more than 66,000.

Roach has shared the many concerns raised by local residents with the DEO. One of his biggest worries has been the reinstatement of the normal work registration and search requirements that must be met to continue qualifying for and receiving benefits. The temporary break on those requirements has been extended until May 9, but he doesn’t think that will be long enough, as employment opportunities are still so limited with so many businesses still closed due to the governor’s restrictive orders, which are being lifted in stages.

Roach, like many others, is also concerned about making sure workers qualifying for unemployment assistance are paid retroactively to when they lost their jobs, not to when they were able to apply, due to all the problems they’ve encountered. The DEO has promised to do that.

The DEO recently launched a new web page at claimdate.myflorida.com/recertification that allows applicants to adjust their filing dates.

Regardless of the filing date, the state still only offers a maximum benefit of $275 a week — based on your earnings — for up to 12 weeks.

“The goal in my opinion should be for the state of Florida to be as generous with our benefits as we possibly can and ensure that the process is as easy as we can make it for folks to maximize the benefits they are entitled to,” Roach said.

An additional $600 a week of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation is now available on top of the state benefits in all 50 states.

Struggles are real

Naples resident Debra Wade, who manages The Secret Ingredient boutique in Ave Maria east of Naples, filed her unemployment claim April 1 after spending more than 20 hours online trying to submit it.

“It’s so crazy. It’s usually down most of the time,” she said.

After four weeks of waiting, Wade, 64, received her first check and feels fortunate to no longer be in limbo.

“I feel like the state of Florida should have a class-action suit against them,” she said. “It’s criminal what they are doing to people.”

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Wade, who returned to work on Monday with a “soft” reopening of the store, now faces another dilemma. She’s not sure how business will go, but she doesn’t want to continue collecting benefits if she no longer needs them.

She’s not sure how she’ll turn the benefits off when the time comes.

“It’s really just an unknown how everyone is going to go forward here and I think it’s fascinating,” Wade said.

Nail technician Selena Tran, 39, who lives in Bonita Springs, is one of many in the state who hasn’t received any unemployment benefits yet.

She’s been out of work since March 12 and she’s not sure when she’ll be able to go back.

“We won’t be going back for a month or maybe longer,” she said in a message via Facebook. “I don’t feel it’s safe and we are too close to clients touching so it will cost us more money to stay safer in this industry.”

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She has three children, ages 4, 7 and 9, to help support with her husband, who up until recently couldn’t work because of an ankle injury that required surgery.

The cost of the surgery virtually “cleaned out” all of their savings, Tran said.

Lehigh Acres resident Marie Hinds, a single mom with a 14-year-old daughter, recently received her first $600 check from the federal government, directly deposited into her account.

While she’s happy to get some money, she’s not sure what the future holds.

“I don’t know if this is the only payment I’m getting,” she said.

She’s still scratching her head over why she’s never received the $275 a week or at least a portion of it, from the state, as she thought she qualified for those benefits too.

“I haven’t spoken with anybody and I’ve called in excess of 1,000 times. And I’m not exaggerating. I’ve called hundreds of times in one day. I can’t get through to anybody —still can’t,” Hinds said.

Last week, her claim’s status online showed she had disqualified weeks.

Hinds filed her claim March 25, going for more than a month without any income, after losing her job as a server at George & Wendy’s Sanibel Seafood Grille on Sanibel Island.

Back to work

With a phased reopening of Florida’s economy under way, Hinds happily returned to her restaurant job May 4.

“Honestly, when they told me we were closing, I just broke down and started crying because that scared me,” she said. “It just hit me like a ton of bricks.”

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Typically, Hinds saves a little bit of money from each paycheck she gets in the busy season to help her get through summer, when business is much slower and and her tips aren’t as generous. With season cut short, she couldn’t do that this year.

Making matters worse, she said, her cat Quazi recently got an ear infection and developed a hematoma from swatting at it, which had to be lanced. Treatment cost Hinds a pretty penny, even as she struggled to keep up with her regular bills.

Luckly, she said, she found help through two local organizations that covered her rent for April and May.

“My rent is not cheap. My rent is almost $1,400 a month. So that is almost $3,000. I would not have one penny to my name if they hadn’t have paid that for me. Luckily, I do,” Hines said.

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Over the next two weeks, she hopes to make enough money to pay rent for June, but she doesn’t know how busy the restaurant will get since its operations are still limited —and the busy season is no more.

Fort Myers resident Joe Mirabile, who worked for The House of Pasta as a server and bartender, wasted no time applying for unemployment benefits.

He submitted a claim March 15, a day after he was let go. He was lucky because he had a balance on a previous claim, so the application and approval process went more smoothly, he said.

Mirabile received his first $275 check in no time.

But then the payments stopped.

Through automated messages, he said, he was told he couldn’t apply again until July and the benefits on his claim had been exhausted.

After three weeks of trying to get someone on the phone from DEO to resolve his issues, he gave up, until he discovered a link to apply directly for money under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

After many weeks with no benefits, his new application was found eligible, allowing him to continue receiving benefits of $275 a week.

“I was making a lot more money than $275 and I thought I would be eligible for the $600 on top of that — and I still don’t know any of that information,” he said.

He’s not sure when his next check will arrive, however, because his account now shows there’s missing information.

“I don’t think anybody could have prepared for this, for what’s going on,” Mirabile said. “But the system could have been better obviously.”

Mirabile credited the state’s DEO and others for the many changes and improvements that have been made to the unemployment system over the past few months.

“I’m kind of amazed at how quickly they are fixing it,” he said. “I thought it was going to take months to fix this.”

Looking to the future

As the last one hired at The House of Pasta, which hasn’t even been in business a year, Mirabile has serious doubts about getting his job back.

He’s OK for now.

“I’m a single person,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about a family. So I feel OK about things.”

He questions how many applicants who are eligible for benefits have simply given up on trying to claim them because the process has been so confusing and time-consuming. Originally from New York, he said he knows of friends who have struggled to get the unemployment benefits they’re owed up there.

“It’s kind of a joke to me that it’s the USA and we’re such a great country. And this was completely a big mess, a circus really,” Mirabile said.

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He hopes to start his own company, a fishing charter service, but he needs to save up more money to do it. So every bit of help he can get counts.

“Hopefully, it will work out in a year or two,” he said.

Golden Gate Estates resident Christina Prieto, 45, has been caught in a Catch-22 of her own in her attempts to get unemployment benefits tied to the pandemic. After applying for them in March, the state found she had exhausted all of her benefits because of a previous claim that had nothing to do with COVID-19.

In her most recent job, she worked as a personal assistant for a home-based business, but that only lasted two weeks before the rapidly spreading virus forced her boss to let her go.

Prieto had just gotten back on her feet after resolving a dispute over the denial of benefits for her previous claim, which took more than 12 weeks to resolve, leaving her with no income for three months as she searched for another job and defended her rights.

After winning her appeal, she received back pay in one lump sum for that claim.

The status of Prieto’s current claim is still pending. She submitted a second claim, applying directly for the federal assistance this time, after getting nothing from the more typical filing.

“I feel like I should qualify, but if not then I can move forward. I just want to know for sure,” Prieto said.

Her special-needs son, she said, got so frustrated by the process that he’s just given up entirely. She doesn’t expect him to change his mind, either, although he’s losing out on income.

Helping hands

Of all the state leaders she’s reached out to for help with her claims, Prieto said Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, has given her the most time and attention, keeping in regular contact and sharing new information about the process as it comes out.

With so many problems and so many people filing for benefits, Passidomo said helping the residents of her district navigate the system has become almost a full-time job for her, with her staffers pitching in as well.

“People say that it was designed to fail,” she said of the broken system. “I don’t agree. It was never designed to handle this many claims.”

She saw many claims denied because applicants put the wrong name down for their employers. They put McDonald’s, for example, rather than the name of the franchise’s owner.

Passidomo has called DEO regularly to share suggestions on how they can improve upon the system.

“It breaks my heart to hear and talk to constituents — and we have a lot of them — single moms and families with kids who don’t have a penny to their name and are relying on getting this unemployment compensation,” she said. “My frustration is that I can’t personally go in the system and process claims. I would love to just go in there and do it.”

Good news

Three or four weeks ago, almost everyone Passidomo talked to hadn’t received any benefits. Now she’s hearing more stories about payments arriving, as she checks up on the status of local residents’ claims, she said.

“It’s still a big challenge,” Passidomo said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel and I know that from personal observations.”

For some, the light at the end of the tunnel still appears so far away, including many of the workers who recently lost their corporate jobs at women’s specialty retailer Chico’s FAS. Many employees were furloughed for more than a month before the company cut 200-250 jobs at its headquarters in Fort Myers.

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A small group of laid-off workers protested not getting severance on Monday, but some who were furloughed weeks ago also complained they hadn’t seen a dime in unemployment compensation from the government yet.

Samuel Hooker, who was laid off from his job in store development at Chico’s, said he feels fortunate that he’s received several payments of $600 and one for $275, while some of his former co-workers have got nothing.

“Some of them are still pending,” he said of their claims. “Some of them had to reapply because evidently there must be a couple different Chico’s categories to choose from. For me, it was easy, I happened to pick the right one, apparently.”

While he’s grateful for the money he’s received, Hooker, 66, said he doesn’t understand why he’s only gotten one $275 check, while the federal boost continues to come weekly. He said he thinks there may be a new glitch with his application and if so he’s not sure how to fix it.

Hooker said he’s called two toll-free numbers for DEO to get help, but described them as “totally useless.”

He gave up trying on the first number he dialed after it rang and rang, with no one picking up the call.

At the other number, he was surprised to finally get a live person on the phone, he said, but he couldn’t get any of his questions answered after she put him on hold for 40 minutes.

“No one could help,” Hooker said.