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Floridians struggle to reach unemployment call center agents after layoffs

As the unemployment rate is dropping, DEO is phasing out of using third-party contractors that were hired to meet the increased call volume from the pandemic.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Many unemployed Floridians said they’re having a hard time getting in touch with the Department of Economic Opportunity after hundreds of call center employees were let go.

“I start calling at 8 in the morning, and I don’t stop calling until 5 at night when the office closes,” said James Skowron, who has been locked out of his account and unable to get in touch with DEO.

Skowron said he calls DEO about 50 times a day, trying to get his unemployment claim fixed.

“I’ve even gotten to the point where I call on my phone and my wife’s phone side-by-side hoping maybe one would slip through the cracks,” Skowron said.

Skowron’s mission to get through to an agent is only getting harder.

As the unemployment rate is dropping, DEO is phasing out using third-party contractors that were hired to meet the increased call volume from the pandemic.

Now, DEO said it cut its contract with Titan Technologies short.

“The Department’s contract with Titan was set to expire on June 30, and the Department was not planning to extend this contract,” DEO said in a statement. “However, the Department was not fully satisfied with the work the company was providing and so, because of performance issues, the Department has chosen to end this contract early.”

Titan said in a statement it is proud of all it has accomplished over the past 15 months.

“While we cannot continue to support our agents on this contract, we are proud of the services we provided and look forward to supporting the State of Florida and FL DEO in the future,” Titan said in a statement.

It added that while it cannot discuss exact numbers, fewer than 500 employees have been released from the company. It is unclear how many in total were taken away from DEO call center duties.

“They just fired everybody,” said Claudia Rios, who was a call center agent, but let go. “Now we’re stuck on the other side.”

Rios said she is locked out of her unemployment claim.

“We worked so hard,” Rios said. “In a way, we feel kind of abandoned.”

Rios said these cuts were premature, as call volume is still immense with the increase in fraudulent claims, the new work search requirement and federal payment cuts.

“Am I going to call? No,” Rios said. “Because I know what is happening. The call center is like an impossible mission.”

“They’re getting more and more desperate, meaning they’re calling more and more often,” said unemployment expert Vanessa Brito.

Brito said letting go of agents at this point is a step back from the progress that’s been made.

“We’re back to the same place we were,” Brito said. “Can’t talk to anybody. Can’t get anything fixed. Glitches every week. And those glitches cause more people to call, with less people to answer the phone.”

DEO is receiving $92.4 million in state and federal funding to modernize the state’s unemployment system. DEO said it’ll use part of that money to hire 435 employees to help with call center support and helping claims.

Currently, DEO said it has 1,300 Reemployment Assistance staff members. The Department did not yet answer how many of those are call center agents.

“Utilizing internal DEO employees, instead of contracted call center staff, will allow these employees to better assist claimants with any issues,” DEO said in a statement.