Under the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed by President Trump last month, John Vold can apply for unemployment benefits that would otherwise not be available to people like him. Vold, who agreed to an on-the record-interview only if he could use a variation of his full name because, he said, he did not want to put himself on the radar of officials in his city of Hialeah, Florida, expected to get $600 a week. In addition to that sum, the 39-year-old barber was looking forward to half of the average jobless benefits in his home state as part of a new program geared at the self-employed.
The only thing standing in his way was Florida’s widely criticized online unemployment system that has shown signs of collapse from the weight of more than 300,000 people trying to file applications since mid-March. That’s when the state’s tourism-driven economy largely shut down as part of the national effort to flatten the coronavirus infection curve. (The state’s governor enacted a shelter-in-place order much more recently, after being roundly criticized for waiting too long.)
Florida is not the only state experiencing unemployment logistical woes. Last month, New York’s online application system crashed after a surge in volume not seen since right after 9/11. The department was forced to extend hours and stagger filing times alphabetically by last name, according to the New York Times. Maine’s Department of Labor is also using an alphabetical system to schedule call-ins from people seeking unemployment benefits. Oregon added more staff and secure phone lines, and shifted employees’ schedules, to handle more calls. Other states have enacted similar measures.
Facing life as an unessential worker in a crumbling economy, Vold was forced to stop lining up fades and trimming beards and—like at least 16 other million people over the past three weeks—appeal to the state.
It did not go well.
“I tried to apply online a few times,” he told The Daily Beast. “But every time I clicked to login, I would get kicked out.” (A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees unemployment benefits, did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.)
On Tuesday morning, Vold was among hundreds of residents in Hialeah who showed up at a local library to pick up and fill out paper unemployment forms being distributed by city officials. Local helicopter TV news footage of the massive crowd, many wearing surgical and homemade masks, waiting to get applications despite the danger of person-to-person contact spreading the coronavirus. The distribution was supposed to begin at 11 a.m., but the line began hours earlier.
“I got there at 7:30 in the morning, thinking I was going to be one of the first ones,” Vold said. “Yeah right. The whole parking lot was full of people waiting in their cars for them to come out with the forms.”
“As more people showed up, they couldn’t control it,” he added. “It became a nasty mob. People were skipping straight to the front. Everybody was crushing up against each other, on top of each other and screaming at each other.”
(Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez admitted to the Miami New Times that his administration was caught off guard: "I'm not gonna lie: We were not expecting people there at 7 a.m. The need was overwhelming, even more than what I expected. We have everything under control now.")
Even though he was wearing a mask and gloves, he felt exposed, Vold said. “There was no social distancing,” he said. “I had old ladies holding on to my arms so they wouldn’t fall down. Some people didn’t have masks. If one person had it, everybody got it.”
Around 12 p.m., Vold finally escaped with an unemployment benefits form written in Spanish. “I thought they were going to help me fill it out,” Vold said Wednesday. “But obviously it didn’t turn out that way. I will need to go to my mom’s house and have her help me fill it out. I speak Spanish, but don’t really read it.”
Vold, who is married and has three children, explained that he stuck it out at the library because he’s had zero income since he was forced to close his barber shop more than two weeks ago.
“The cops came and shut me down,” he said. “My barbers were looking at me as if it was my choice. Now everybody is getting desperate.”
On a weekly basis, he typically made about $1,000 cutting hair and collected an additional $500 from barbers who rent chairs in his shop, Vold said. His business expenses include $3,000 a month in rent, plus electricity. “I have no idea what I am going to do about the barber shop,” he said. “I called my landlord, but he’s not answering.”
Between his home mortgage, his car payments, the cellphone bill for him and his wife, his personal monthly expenses are at least $1,700. “That doesn’t include food,” Vold said. “I was able to pay the mortgage last week, but I will see what happens next month. AT&T just sent me a message that my payment is late.”
But Vold realizes he is not alone and doesn’t have faith the system will deliver. “A lot of people are counting on their unemployment,” he said. “I am hopeful I will get something, but I am not counting on it. I am stressed out like crazy.”