In mid May, with the pandemic raging and thousands of jobless Floridians in their third month of waiting for unemployment benefits, Kelly Johnson decided it was time to write a letter to Donald Trump, for whom she had voted in 2016.
“I just wanted the federal government to step in, because it was such a mess,” says the 48-year-old single mom of eight and resident of Dunedin, outside Tampa. “I was really just desperate at that point.”
Johnson had lost both of her jobs, at a restaurant and a gym, when the pandemic ramped up in March. When she tried to file for unemployment, it took almost a week to get her application through the state’s glitchy unemployment website. The weeks passed—no benefits.
She started a Facebook group for people having trouble getting their benefits, and its membership quickly swelled into the thousands. Soon, Johnson was spending hours each day on the phone and online trying to help the group’s members secure their unemployment checks from Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) while at the same time battling for her own benefits. Some of them couldn’t even file an application because the web interface locked them out or kept crashing. Others were able to file, but their applications were marked “pending” for weeks. People who did receive benefits got less than they were owed. Her conversations grew increasingly dire: People were losing their homes and living in their cars.
In April, frustrated by the lack of progress, Johnson and dozens of her group’s members began protesting all over the state and caught the attention of the local press. Soon, Johnson got an email out of the blue from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who thanked her for contacting his office (she says she never had), asked for more information about her case, and pledged to bring it to the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Within a week, Johnson’s benefits started rolling in. She wondered if it was because she had gone on TV so much that Tallahassee wanted to shut her up.
But many people in Johnson’s group were still waiting. So she went to WhiteHouse.gov and wrote her message to the president. “I sent a letter to tell him: ‘You’re going to lose this election because of this unemployment,’” Johnson recounts. “I was like, ‘I’m working with the unemployed here, and DeSantis is going to lose this for you. You need to fix this.’”
The White House sent her a bland form response. That same week, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature voted against convening a special session to address the unemployment system issues in the state. For Johnson, it was the last straw. “I felt like in our government’s eyes we were the scum of the earth,” she says.
Days later, she went on a local radio show and announced that she was going to run for the state legislature. And after a lifetime of voting for Republicans, she would do it as a Democrat.
If Trump wants to win the crucial swing state of Florida, he cannot afford many Kelly Johnsons. He won the state by 1.2 percentage points in 2016. In 2020, that razor-thin margin could be erased by the thousands of Floridians who have been burned by the state’s broken, worst-in-the-nation unemployment system. It is a system that Trump’s Republican allies helped bankrupt after the 2008 financial crisis, setting the stage for disaster when the state faced another downturn. Now, the system’s dysfunction in the face of the COVID pandemic has earned Trump and his allies ire from the newly unemployed, including about 600 members of Johnson’s group who were 2016 Trump voters but she says have told her they won’t vote for him in 2020.
“Sometimes for voters it’s about what has really hit you viscerally and directly,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “That’s the kind of issue this is: It hit people hard. Those are the kinds of things people remember. In a close election, it’s definitely one of the things that could sway the election.”
Before the Great Recession, Florida’s economy was surging. Home prices had jumped 70 percent between 1996 and 2004, and tax revenue from things like real estate transactions and construction rose with them. Buoyed by this cash, Florida’s GOP-majority slashed other taxes, marketing the state to businesses and individuals seeking lower taxes. In 2006, 1,000 new residents were moving to Florida per day, adding the equivalent of Tampa to the state’s population each year. (Just last year, Trump changed his legal residence to Florida, likely in order to take advantage of the state’s tax structure, which includes no estate tax and no state income tax.)
The 2008 downturn hit Florida like a hurricane. Over the next two years, the state became a foreclosure epicenter, and the state’s unemployment rate nearly tripled. On top of business-friendly tax cuts, Florida had for years allowed businesses to contribute the bare minimum allowed by federal law to the state’s unemployment trust fund—what amounted to $7 per employee per year. As the newly jobless flocked to unemployment during the Great Recession, the already diminished trust dwindled. Soon, Florida, like many states, had to borrow money from the federal government to cover benefits.
The plan was for employers to pay back the borrowed federal money through unemployment taxes. But in 2011, at the behest of the business lobby and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, the state legislature passed a bill that spared employers by cutting benefits. It reduced the number of weeks someone could receive unemployment from 26 to as few as 12, depending on the state’s unemployment rate. It also made it harder to apply for unemployment, requiring residents to file online and to complete a 45-question math and reading test—ostensibly to help match them with jobs—and upping the number of mandatory weekly job searches required while also making it easier to deny benefits based on a person’s misconduct, on or off the job.
“This governor does not believe in increased taxation,” Scott’s budget adviser told lawmakers during a hearing. “So he’d like to focus on controlling the outflow of benefits.”
The legislature’s Republican majority said lowering companies’ unemployment tax burden would bring business to Florida, creating jobs and sending money into the empty trust. Critics saw the measure as something more sinister: an effort to refill the trust by making it as difficult as possible for people to access benefits.
“Florida sabotaged their system,” says Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project who studies unemployment. “They emerged from the recession, they’d borrowed federal money, they owed it back, and then they had to fill up their trust fund. And instead of taxing employers to do that, they do it by cutting benefits.”
At the time of the bill’s passage in 2011, Florida was still reeling from the financial crisis, with an unemployment rate of more than 11 percent—the third highest in the nation. Yet in the year that followed, benefit payments to new recipients fell by 40 percent, four times the national drop. By early 2013, just 16 percent of unemployed Floridians were getting aid, the lowest rate in the country. (The national rate was close to 25 percent.)
Several worker advocacy groups sued, alleging that the new system, with its requirements to file online and its lengthy skills assessment, violated civil rights laws and discriminated against people with disabilities and those who didn’t speak much English. The US Department of Labor agreed, telling the state that it had to correct the problems or face sanctions. But the DEO made only small changes; it kept the skills assessment and even added another series of forms that applicants had to fill out. (The legislature made the skills assessment voluntary in 2014.)
In 2013, the DEO launched CONNECT, a $77 million online unemployment system designed by the consulting firm Deloitte to meet the 2011 law’s labyrinthine specifications. In the year that followed, benefit denials rose 27 percent, even as the number of claims fell. By 2015, the proportion of jobless Floridians getting benefits plummeted to 12 percent—tied with South Carolina for the lowest rate in the nation. The number of workers who were disqualified for missing reporting requirements quadrupled.
That year, the Florida auditor general issued a scathing audit of CONNECT. Among dozens of issues like delayed payments, it found that the system often entered in the wrong data, leading legitimate claims for unemployment to be rejected. Two more audits by the state, the latest in 2019, came to similar conclusions.
Since the pandemic unemployment crisis hit, Florida’s GOP majority has taken to blaming Deloitte for the pain caused by the online system. DeSantis ordered a state investigation of the contract with Deloitte, sued the company, and fined it $8 million. But blaming Deloitte misses the point, says Evermore, because the online interface was designed to implement the unemployment policy set by Republican lawmakers.
“They’re not looking at their own policies, or the 2011 law that set this thing up to be so punishing,” she says, noting that Massachusetts’s unemployment interface runs on the same Deloitte-made system yet has one of the state has one of most generous unemployment programs in the country. “You can design a system to try and get benefits out, or you can design a system that’s designed to hold people up at every turn.”
“The idea is to make the system as inoperable as possible to reduce how much out-of-work Floridians get,” says state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat. “There’s just no other way to describe it.”
Sarah Schwirian, the press secretary for Scott—who is now a US senator—said in an email that it’s “obviously false” to claim that as governor, Scott sought to make unemployment difficult for people to access in order to protect businesses from increased taxation. She did not respond to a request to elaborate.
This spring, with the pandemic in full swing and Florida’s hospitality sector alone having shed nearly 400,000 jobs, DeSantis admitted that the unemployment system was a “jalopy” and had been designed to fail.
Republicans in the state began worrying that the failures of the unemployment system could be a problem for the president in November. One DeSantis adviser told Politico it was “a shit sandwich.” A poll commissioned by the Democratic National Committee in June found broad dissatisfaction among Floridians with Trump’s efforts at economic relief.
DeSantis told the DEO to do whatever it had to do to make things right. The agency spent $110 million to add 1500 unemployment call center workers. But those workers apparently didn’t have the authority to submit and amend applications, according to state Sen. Jason Pizzo, who obtained messages between call center workers and supervisors. A number of workers showed a local TV station that the button they needed to click to move ahead with a caller’s application was grayed out and disabled, so they had to instruct desperate callers to try to submit their applications again later. “I had call center workers reach out to me who said, ‘We feel guilty, because we’re making pretty good money per hour to lie to people—to spend an hour on the phone knowing at the beginning of the call that we can’t help them,’” says Pizzo.
Six months into the pandemic, the DEO says it has paid out about 2 million of the 4 million claims it has received. But people who had to wait months to get unemployment missed out on the federal CARES Act’s $600-per-week unemployment boost before it expired in July. That would have been a critical financial lift for many families, notes Pizzo, given that Florida caps state benefits at $275 per week, among the lowest in the nation. (The DEO did not respond to questions from Mother Jones.)
In September, DeSantis ended Florida’s participation in Trump’s program to provide an extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits two weeks before the program concluded, because the state didn’t have enough money to provide the required $100-per-week match. The termination, Pizzo estimates, cost Floridians $480 million in benefits.
In Johnson’s Facebook group, anger at Trump and DeSantis grew. “He’s Trump’s ‘guy,’” one user wrote of the governor. “He’s a tool. A puppet.”
“#DeSATAN & #tRUMPSGOTTAGO.”
Johnson says, “They’re angry with DeSantis, but this year, they can’t vote him out—so they’re going to vote the other guy out.”
Johnson is under no illusions about her tough odds in the race against Republican incumbent Chris Sprowls, who is set to become the Speaker of the Florida House if he wins reelection. If she loses, she says she’ll keep working to advocate for a better unemployment system, even in the face of a Republican legislature that has shown little interest in improving unemployment.
“Because they started to be unemployed, people started to pay attention to politics,” she says. People like her were stuck at home without jobs, watching the news and spending hours steeped in the details of unemployment—and of the president’s pandemic response.
“We were home, so we got to pay attention,” she says. “We were watching the government. And that’s when we were like, ‘Oh my god. Why did we vote for this guy?’”
Image credits: Ken Cedeno/CNP/Zuma; Joe Raedle/Getty