A Tallahassee man wants to take Gov. Ron DeSantis to court over Florida's unemployment compensation system that he says fails to deliver benefits to out-of-work Floridians.


In a letter, Tallahassee lawyers Gautier Kitchen and Marie Mattox notified the Governor's Office this Monday of their intent to sue. Their client, Richard L. Walls, has an application for jobless benefits that's been pending for about a month.


DeSantis and the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) engaged in "gross negligence (and) fraud" for using an application process that inflicts "emotional distress" on people seeking unemployment benefits, the letter says.


The Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for a comment about the planned suit. Walls' lawyers say he worked as a cook at the Dreamland BBQ restaurant at The Centre of Tallahassee and was laid off March 21. He started applying for unemployment two days later.


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Nearly 7 of every 8 Floridians who managed to file claims since mid-March are waiting to have them processed — the worst rate in the country.


In comparison, according to an AP analysis, California and Texas had about two-thirds of their claims backlogged, while New York — the country’s current coronavirus epicenter — had about 30% of its claims still waiting.


In Florida, there are thousands who reportedly have been unable to complete what they said is a cumbersome, web-based application process that routinely kicks them out of the system when they hit the submit button.


Others report they’ve waited hours for assistance on the telephone only to have the phone line go dead.


“The system is broken,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee.


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“People are frustrated and desperate," she added. "I don’t know how many times and ways I can say this, but something has to be done now, because literally people’s lives are at stake.”


Walls is one of the lucky Floridians who has been able to get in line for payment. His application was accepted after two days of phone calls and wrestling with the Connect web-based application process.


As of Thursday morning, according to DEO, 1,762,285 people have filed for benefits since March 15. And out of that group, 210,703 claims have been processed, with 116,830 claimants receiving a check.


A Floridian has a lower chance of receiving an unemployment check than residents of other mega-states. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 1% of the Florida workforce entitled to benefits receive them, compared to 3.1% for Texas, 6.2% for California and 7.6% for New York.


As an uproar over the situation began to grow louder, earlier this month, DeSantis made moves to speed up the application process. An additional 77 computer servers were hooked up the to DEO’s Connect website, doubling its capacity, and 2,000 state employees were redirected to DEO to handle the onslaught of applications.



DeSantis has conceded DEO was unable to provide him with information about the number of claims filed or processed. DeSantis then put Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter in charge of the unemployment system, effective April 14.


“I hope that Jon can get in there, rattle the cage,” DeSantis said.


Ausley's not so sure: “Efforts to put Band-Aids on what seems to be archaic technology have not worked.”


In the meantime, two House Democratic leaders have called for a special session to address unemployment compensation, Medicaid expansion and elections in a pandemic.


State Reps. Bobby Dubose of Fort Lauderdale and Evan Jenne of Hollywood said the session should occur virtually or in Tallahassee once federal guidelines permit gatherings of a large number of people.


James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee