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Friday, Nov 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns
COLUMN

The state unemployment computer system that was fixed? It’s not fixed

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At 9:17 a.m. on June 28, Robert Geller learned that he had gone from being gainfully employed to jobless. Obviously that’s never good news, but Geller didn’t spend any time feeling sorry for himself. He immediately began the process to receive up to 16 weeks of unemployment benefits from the state.

What follows is one man’s journey through the bureaucratic abyss of computer glitches and blood-pressure-exploding runarounds. Nearly two months after that fateful morning when he became an unemployment statistic, he hasn’t received a dime.

“When you see that the unemployment claims are dropping in the state, it’s because people have stopped trying,” he said. “You can’t believe how frustrating it is.”

The first step Geller took when he learned the Internet startup company where he worked no longer had a position for him was to go to CONNECT, the state’s $60 million unemployment website.

You may have heard there were thousands of complaints late last year when the new system was introduced on Oct. 15, but the state promised to get things fixed.

It’s not fixed.

“I began to fill out the forms online,” Geller said. “It’s a long process, but I worked through it and got to the final page where you submit the form. It bumped me off.”

Well, stuff happens. He tried again.

Bumped again.

He called for assistance to see if he was doing something wrong. We should note his experience with computers at this point. He once managed nine Facebook accounts for clients as a social media marketer. He knows which keys to hit and which basic solutions to try.

The person on the other end of the help line told him to try a different Internet browser than the one he was using, Google Chrome. He switched to Safari. That didn’t help.

“Well, you could go to the public library and try there,” he was told.

“They were pretty dismissive to me,” he said.

Being computer-savvy, he didn’t want to give up on solving the problem at home. By the third day of his unemployment, though, he surrendered. Rather than follow the insanity path and repeat the same steps while expecting a different outcome, he went to the Jan Platt public library and got on a computer there.

Type. Type. Type.

Last page.

Bump.

The website told him he needed to upload a file, but he couldn’t do that on library computers.

“I felt like there was a hidden camera watching me,” he said. “This has to be a joke.”

Next stop: the unemployment office on Florida Avenue in Tampa. There were about 30 people trying to fill out forms on office computers, while a couple of workers moved around and tried to soothe the frustration in the room.

“I felt like this was some bizarre out-of-body experience,” he said.

Eventually, Geller asked for help and a couple of workers hovered over him, offering suggestions and workarounds. It took three more hours of form-writing, submissions and disconnects before: success!

The form went through.

All was well.

Until it wasn’t.

“I got a letter back that said I don’t qualify,” Geller said.

He’ll become eligible for benefits, the letter said, in October — more than three months after losing his job. That’s a long time with no income.

“You just get beaten down,” he said. “It looks like someone from high school built this site.”

The good news is, he has some leads on new jobs and could be back to work before October — just in time for the elections. Even better, he can bolster the state’s claim that the unemployment rate is falling, falling, falling.

Well, technically it’s true.

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