(TNS) — Frustrated by what they say is Gov. Ron DeSantis' refusal to fix the state's crippled unemployment system, activists are planning to take to the streets and social media this week to demand action.
Protests will be held Wednesday, June 9, in Tallahassee, Orlando and Tampa, Fla., to draw attention to the untold number of the coronavirus-related unemployed who have received either nothing or only partial payment of benefits. Virtual protests will also be held throughout the week via social media.
"We need to stand up as Floridians," said Kelly Johnson, a laid-off restaurant manager who founded the group Action Group for COVID-19 unemployment (Florida) after she could not access her unemployment benefits in a timely manner. "We need to start paying more attention to what's happening in our government. I want to encourage everyone to do their research, and show up when it's time to vote, because we really need Florida to be given back to the people."
She said standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other protesters is empowering, and she hopes others who are frustrated with the state's response to the unemployment crisis will choose to get involved to help others who are still without benefits.
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About 2 million unemployment claims have been filed in Florida as a result of coronavirus business shutdown ordered in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But as laid off and furloughed Floridians sought aid, they were met with months of delays and frustration. Jammed phone lines, a difficult-to-navigate online system, and the inability to reach a state official for help with problems led to countless unpaid claims.
Once the checks rolled in, Floridians were further dismayed to learn the state capped jobless assistance at a meager $275 a week. And even then, many recipients are infuriated that they have not been given the additional $600 federal supplement.
The severity and scope of the issue has now thrust Florida into the national spotlight.
On Monday, it was not Florida's two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, who demanded action on paying Floridians their share of federal unemployment benefits. Instead, but Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who called on the U.S. Department of Labor to look into why Florida does not seem to be properly paying unemployment claims.
"While all states have seen record increases in the number of its residents applying for unemployment," their letter states, "the state of Florida's performance has proved uniquely poor in its abject inability to assist millions of Florida residents who have applied for and continue to await unemployment benefits."
DeSantis himself as called the broken system a "jalopy." He has called for a state inspector general probe of the Florida unemployment benefits process.
DeSantis, however, quickly dismissed the U.S. senators' call for a federal Labor Dept. review as "partisan." In addition, the Florida Legislature's GOP leaders have rebuffed state and federal Democrats call for a special session by lawmakers to repair the system and address the low caps on payments.
Bonnie Armstrong, founder of Florida Workers — Fight for your UE Benefits!, agrees that there are certainly politics at play. But she said the problem, is not with the Democrats, but with DeSantis and Florida U.S. Sens. Scott and Rubio for failing to stand up for the people of Florida.
"I really feel like they did a disservice by describing us, who have become unemployed through no fault of our own, as lazy," she said. "I'm a Republican. I voted for DeSantis. I've never filed for unemployment in my life. It's really making me think hard about how I'm going to vote in the next election, I'll say that."
Armstrong, whose group has grown to about 5,700 members since it's first protest on April 17, calls herself an "accidental activist." It began when she lost her job as a server at a Naples, Fla. restaurant when it shut down due to coronavirus fears. After "hundreds" of emails and letters to state authorities over a seven-week period, she said, she eventually received state benefits, but only a portion of the $600 weekly federal subsidy.
Her group's goal is to bring attention to the fact that, despite DeSantis' contention that "99.9 percent" of unemployment claims have been paid, many of the state's unemployed have not received a dime. Others, she said, have received only partial payment, and many are facing a desperate financial crisis.
"I would like to see the governor take some responsibility," she said. "He's shifted the blame from the beginning. The website was created to get people to give up."
Armstrong is not the only one who agrees the politics at play in Florida's unemployment crisis is very real, but blames the DeSantis administration, not "partisan" Senate Democrats.
Johnson, the jobless restaurant worker, is taking her activism one step further. She has decided to run for state office as well.
"I am running for office because of all the unemployment stuff," said Johnson, a Democrat who is challenging Republican incumbent Chris Sprowls for the state House seat in District 65 northwest of Tampa. "After seeing all the stuff happening to Floridians, my first instinct was to move. And then I thought, maybe we can elect people who can make some changes."
Judy Tanzosch, a former contract administrator who was laid off March 27, is organizing frustrated unemployed people in the state capital. After spending six weeks fighting for her own unemployment benefits, she founded Fix It Florida, which now has 1,300 members, she said.
The Tallahassee-based group has been organizing rallies statewide for weeks until taking a break during the recent George Floyd protests.
"That's such an important issue too, and we didn't want to take away from that, so we just sort of paused everything."
But Wednesday, June 9, they return with both in-person protests, where attendees are requested to social distance and wear masks, and an auto caravan, where people can fight for their rights from the safety of their own vehicles, she said.
"Asking people to wait four weeks for benefits when we know most Americans are one to two checks away from being homeless is absolutely unacceptable," she said. "Other states are being paid, but in Florida we have people waiting 10, 11, 12 weeks that have not seen a dime."
Tanzosch said her group also offers ways to get involved that don't require attending a protest.
"Next week, we're going to have a call-in day to U.S. Government Accountability Office," she said. "We're also going to lodge a formal complaint about this."
Florida Unemployment Weekly Virtual Protest is another group taking to social media and the Internet to further awareness and demand action from Florida leaders.
"I think it's that the system was designed by the past administration to fail, which is something Ron DeSantis has since done a very good job of making clear," said founder Kayla Langborgh. "In that way, he doesn't hold any responsibility."
Langborgh was laid off on March 17 from her job at an event rental company in Jacksonville. After a month of fighting for her benefits, she eventually got paid, although she said she believes it was because of "all the protesting I did."
Her group opts for virtual protests, she said, because many people still feel unsafe in large groups when the virus is still around. So, each Friday at 9 a.m., the organization peppers the Twitter and Facebook accounts of the DEO and DeSantis, with posts bearing the hashtag #FLDEOVirtualProtest.
The goal, she said, is to force them to see the names and faces of Floridians who are broke, frustrated and desperate as a direct result of his refusal to fix the system.
"I honestly just want to see everyone get paid and the website start working better," she said. "It has been working better than it has in the past, but it's not in the capacity it should be and that's just not acceptable."
DeSantis did not respond to a request to comment for this article.
©2020 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.