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Out of work — and cash — millions of Americans are still waiting for their first unemployment check

The growing national backlog, analyzed by The Post, has proved particularly problematic in Florida — where fewer than 7 percent of applicants have received aid

An employee at a public library in Tampa hands out unemployment paperwork last week. (Chris O'meara/AP)
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Holly Strout is a 47-year-old event planner in Volusia County, Fla., not far from Orlando, where she was born and raised. There’s just one problem: The state where she has lived her entire life didn’t seem to know that.

For days, Strout had been trying to file for unemployment benefits, joining millions of Americans unexpectedly out of a job because of the deadly coronavirus. Try as she might, though, Florida’s beleaguered system would not verify her identity. So she emailed. She faxed. She made “116 calls a day,” she said. It wasn’t until early April, nearly three weeks after applying, that she learned the verdict.

“I was told I was ineligible,” Strout said. “They told me to reapply.”

Out of work, out of cash and running out of patience, Strout is among more than 26 million workers nationwide seeking unemployment benefits, many of whom are still waiting for approval. The economic carnage wrought by the coronavirus has resulted in a national backlog of at least 3 million unpaid jobless claims, according to a new analysis by The Washington Post, threatening Americans around the country with even more financial hardship than they anticipated.

The figure reflects claims made by April 4. The true backlog is probably far greater, following the release of new federal data Thursday showing an additional 4 million people who filed for unemployment last week. Meanwhile, an untold number of self-employed Americans, including Strout, still can’t even apply for aid. The $2 trillion aid package adopted by Congress last month extended jobless benefits to these laborers, a broad category that includes freelancers, Uber and Lyft drivers and Grubhub deliverers. But only 10 states are paying this support, according to the Labor Department, leaving millions of families in financial limbo.

Florida appears to be among the many states still struggling to process applications from such gig workers, contributing to its sky-high unemployment backlog. Roughly 1.7 million residents have sought jobless aid there since the outbreak began, and fewer than 120,000 have actually received money, according to state data last updated Thursday.

“You’ve received no wages, and you have to put food on the table, pay for your car payment, pay for your auto insurance, pay for your health insurance,” Strout said, “because if you don’t pay, you’re screwed.”

Strout said she had been doing well. She had saved for years. “Financially, I’m worried,” she said. “I don’t want to lose my home.”

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Over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in March. Here are some of their stories. (Video: The Washington Post)

No state could have prepared fully for such a surge in applications, economists say, but the delays have been exacerbated by low staffing levels and outdated computer systems at many of the offices that process claims. Federal watchdogs affirmed those concerns in a new report this week, finding the shortcomings are “particularly evident in prior periods of increased stress on the unemployment program.”

More than 17 million Americans submitted new jobless claims in the critical four-week period when the pandemic escalated from March 8 through April 4, federal data shows. So far, fewer than 14.2 million of those applications have been successfully processed, according to the latest Labor Department data on “insured” claims. The rate has been even slower than economists predicted, according to a Goldman Sachs note to clients Thursday.

Such delays inflict hardship on millions of families in Florida and nationwide. But the backlog is also harming the broader U.S. economy, as families awaiting aid aren’t able to pay bills or, in some cases, buy food.

“This should not have been a surprise to anyone. We’ve been screaming about it for years,” said Julia Lane, an economist and professor at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “The states haven’t had the investments in modern IT and workforce training that could have mitigated it, and now we’re paying the price for shortsighted budget cuts.”

Underfunded, understaffed and under siege: Unemployment offices nationwide are struggling to do their jobs

In Florida, the state’s phone lines are jammed and its website repeatedly crashes, creating delays that Gerlinde Harrison of Cape Coral knows all too well. Harrison, who lost her job as a cook at an Italian restaurant, applied for unemployment aid in Florida on March 22. A month later, she has received no money and her application still says “pending.”

“No one I work with has been able to get unemployment yet,” she said.

Harrison, 53, lives with her husband in a house they rent for $1,450 each month. If they don’t get help soon, they won’t have money for May rent. Harrison said she has called Florida’s unemployment hotline 50 times and never got through. She went online Thursday, after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) vowed that the state had added more servers and the website would not crash. After she answered all of the questions about how she became unemployed, the system kicked her off without a confirmation.

“I try to log in every day at 7:30 a.m., and it’s just error message after error message,” she said. “We are waiting for the unemployment money and the stimulus check, and so far we didn’t get anything.”

Stimulus checks and other coronavirus relief hindered by dated technology and rocky government rollout

The Sunshine State’s litany of problems came to light about a decade ago under the leadership of then-Gov. Rick Scott (R), who slashed unemployment benefits in the name of austerity. In doing so, local officials put in place a $77 million computer system to process applications that auditors since have said repeatedly suffers from serious deficiencies, including errors that have wrongly denied people benefits.

Aides to Scott, now a U.S. senator, defended his tenure. “Some politicians always try to find a scapegoat instead of taking responsibility for their own actions,” spokeswoman Sarah Schwirian said in a statement, pointing out that the troubles predated his election as governor.

Years of repeated warnings, apparently unheeded by state officials, later contributed to the immense backlog Florida now faces in the midst of an economic crisis, local leaders say. “It was routinely ignored, and that’s where we find ourselves now,” said state Sen. Randolph Bracy (D). “It’s been years of neglect.”

The backlog is so unwieldy that Florida officials at one point recommended out-of-work residents apply through paper applications. Hundreds queued in line outside one state office in South Florida in early April, sparking widespread criticism that the state’s missteps had forced people to put themselves in public danger just to get the benefits they need to afford groceries and pay their mortgages.

To speed up benefit payments, DeSantis this month announced a wave of additional changes. He essentially sidelined the leader of Florida’s unemployment agency, tapping a new “czar” to oversee the system, and sought to fix tech glitches and staff up the state’s call centers. Florida also unveiled a second website to apply for benefits, hoping to ease congestion on its error-plagued $77 million portal.

“While we’ve made some progress in recent days, it’s not nearly enough,” DeSantis said at a news conference last week.

Those efforts have not always helped.

DeSantis, for example, waived a requirement that people actively seek work to qualify for unemployment. But his announcement last month made little difference to some jobless residents there, who have reported seeing prompts on their online applications to document their job-search progress in April anyway, according to state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), who said constituents have flooded her office with questions. Others are being prompted online to recertify their claims to receive checks, she said, even though Florida no longer requires it.

“It’s been waived, but it’s not been operationalized,” Eskamani said. The department “is not penalizing anyone in the sense money is withheld from you. But they’re being penalized, because the broken system has let them down.”

A spokeswoman for DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment. The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees unemployment, declined to comment. Many residents have reported that the unemployment website has been down in recent days.

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The digital deficiencies threaten to harm self-employed workers most. The $2 trillion Cares Act allows contract laborers and gig-economy drivers to collect weekly checks, including the extra $600 boost that lawmakers made available to former full-time employees. Florida has not yet paid these benefits or indicated when it will start, sparking confusion and panic among many self-employed workers who are not sure whether to apply.

Florida had not yet ordered residents to stay at home when Lee Hansen decided to stop driving for Uber in early March. The 66-year-old retiree in Sanford, a half-hour from Orlando, had been doing gig-economy work to supplement his Social Security income, working “a little more than part time to survive,” he said. But he has lung disease, a major risk factor in contracting the coronavirus, forcing him off the road.

“I couldn’t take that chance. I’m really high-risk,” Hansen said.

His wife, Diane, similarly had been self-employed, helping proctor health exams for restaurant workers. But many cooks are not on the job now, and neither was she, so the pair filed for unemployment — only to run into the same glitches, delays and uncertainties troubling so many in their state.

Diane did the work, assembling the applications. Her claim took a week to submit, because of errors, before she was ultimately denied; Lee’s went through, but it is listed as pending. “She calls 20, 30, 40 times a day, every day, and she’s never gotten to the point of talking to a person,” Lee said. Meanwhile, the bills are mounting. Only one of them has received the stimulus payment promised by the U.S. government, and they are putting a lot on credit cards as a result.

“We are better off than some people because we have Social Security, but that doesn’t pay the rent,” Diane said.

“It’s a waiting game,” she added, “and it’s hard to sit around and wait.”