During record unemployment, Florida DEO quietly lays off hundreds of call-center employees


  • Screenshot via Vanessa Brito/Instagram
At the start of the pandemic in March, calls to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity went from 28,000 in one week to 130,000 in the next.

Four months later, on Tuesday, the very DEO workers desperately trying to deliver unemployment relief to Floridians amid the pandemic were notified that they are losing their own jobs.

An email message sent to contracted call-center employees blames the layoffs on an "unanticipated lack of continued funding," terminating their contracts and effectively ending DEO operations at the call center. Workers shared the news on social media Tuesday night.

The DEO took action quietly, rather than notify the public that hundreds more Floridians will soon be waiting in the same digital line for benefits, the very system they used to staff. The messages do not say how many call center staffers were let go, but earlier reports said the state had pledged to add up to 2,000 additional DEO employees earlier in the year.
"As per my sources, there were about 1000 representatives available to answer phones as of 2 weeks ago. Today, a few hundred were laid off due to lack of funding," wrote Florida Republican political consultant Vanessa Brito on Instagram on Tuesday, along with a screenshot of the layoff email. "Most benefits specialists hired to deal with the increased volume of claims were scheduled to work through September 30th. Today, they were informed that their last day will be July 21st."

In another post on Wednesday, Brito said, "The DEO does not provide adequate training or tools for access to claims, even when representatives urged them to do so. The funding is there despite what the DEO told some of its terminated contractors."

"There are now close to 800 more jobless Floridians - thanks to the DEO (again)," she wrote, while including a screenshot of an email telling those laid off: "Please do not contact the DEO directly."
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — ever eager to kick his own state when it's down — had touted the slight decrease in unemployment claims filed in June, but the agency still takes more than an hour to speak to, as people wait four months or longer to receive benefits.

DeSantis simultaneously slashed $1 billion in services from the state budget. Among his cuts were tens of millions for programs employing people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, efforts to create affordable housing and, apparently, the state's capacity to address its own unemployment-system crisis.

In a cruel twist, had the staffers been private-sector employees being laid off in such large numbers, their employer would likely have had to follow the Florida DEO's Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notifications, or WARN, provisions. That rule requires companies initiating mass layoffs to give workers 60 days' notice to prepare and file for unemployment.

Instead, federal, state and local governments providing public services are not covered by WARN, and these employees were emailed just one week before their last day. Worse, since many employees were new or in training, they will likely be ineligible for unemployment benefits themselves.

The news comes while the U.S. Senate has held up efforts to renew livable unemployment benefits, casting further doubt on the process, a terrifying ambiguity now sadly typical for a state run by Ron DeSantis.

In April, Florida suffered the biggest increase in COVID-related unemployment of any state, with a statewide rate jumping to 14.5 percent by June. Exacerbating the crisis was CONNECT, an online system contracted by former governor Rick Scott that has been called "shameful" by lawmakers and was designed to fail, leading to one of the lowest unemployment-insurance rates nationwide for employers — and stranding people when they need help most.

In May, DeSantis blamed the state's unresolved unemployment claims on paperwork problems, and escaped a lawsuit attempting to force agency repairs. Orlando attorney John Morgan has offered to sue for damages on behalf of the state over the website, but so far, the best chance job seekers and the newly canned had when encountering a problem was to connect with a human by phone.

"The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has ended the contracts with AECOM and UDT. At this time, DEO has determined it is best to focus its efforts on the companies who have provided higher skilled and fully trained representatives," a DEO spokesperson said. "DEO continues to fund more than 3,000 customer service representatives who are available during customer service hours to assist Floridians with their Reemployment Assistance claims."

"Time and time again we’ve received updates about the Department of Economic Opportunity from social media or from directly impacted Floridians versus the agency themselves," wrote Orlando state Rep. Anna Eskamani. "It’s concerning to hear about call center contacts being terminated especially since so many Floridians are still trying to access DEO call agents to provide assistance with their benefits. It’s July, and Floridians are still dealing with a broken system, now with less staff to help."

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