Coronavirus and jobs: CareerSource asks patience as unprecedented unemployment inundates CONNECT claims system

Tyler Treadway
Treasure Coast Newspapers

In early March, Jim Moore's phone was blowing up with restaurants wanting him to find experienced cooks and servers for them. That ended abruptly two weeks ago, said Moore, owner of Moore Hospitality Search in Jensen Beach.

"I had five interviews set up for last Tuesday, and all but one of them canceled. Now I'm getting lots of good, quality applicants, but nowhere for them to go," he said.

The coronavirus prompted the governor to close all restaurant dining rooms in Florida March 20, after initially trying to limit crowd sizes to enforce "social distancing."

"How bad the virus affected a restaurant depended on your business model," Moore said. "Full-service restaurants are either closed, unless they have established curbside or delivery business. Fast food restaurants haven't been as affected."

More: Latest news about coronavirus and its impact on the Treasure Coast

On a normal Sunday in March, Sebastian's waterfront would be bustling. On March 29, 2020, amid a COVID-19 threat, residents were busy outside, but restaurants and breweries offered takeout only. Some were closed.

Unprecedented unemployment 

Restaurants may be among the hardest hit, but the pandemic is having serious impacts throughout the Treasure Coast and Florida job markets.

"We're seeing an unprecedented number of people filing for unemployment," said Tonya Woodworth, communications manager at CareerSource Research Coast.

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CareerSource works with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to help the unemployed find jobs.

St. Lucie County partners with CareerSource Research Coast.

The agency's centers in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties are closed to the public and staffers "for health and safety concerns," Woodworth said. "But we're offering all of our services virtually through a COVID-19 portal on our website, careersource.com."

The vast majority of people seeking CareerSource's services, such as 99% of inquiries to the Indian River County center, want help filing for unemployment benefits, Woodworth said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity call center received 1.1 million phone calls seeking unemployment assistance last week. In the week ending March 14, there were 6,200 claims for unemployment assistance filed; in the week ending March 21, there were 74,000.

CONNECT system inundated

Applicants are getting frustrated, complaining they can't get through on the phone, and the website either kicks them off or keeps looping around to the same pages.

“We encourage the public to be patient with the process,” Woodworth said. “This situation is unprecedented. Our team will assist people in any way we can.”

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Many people are filing for unemployment benefits in hopes they can wait out the virus and get their old jobs back, said David Stemm, owner of Principle Personnel Group in Stuart. "They're not looking for new jobs at this point."

Unemployment claims are soaring as the coronavirus pandemic shuts down businesses.

Some businesses are hiring, particularly grocery stores, delivery services and other essential businesses. Most of them are large corporations rather than local mom-and-pops.

"There's a lot of fear out there about going to work at a big company," Woodworth said. "Because of the coronavirus, they don't want to work in close quarters with a lot of other people." 

More: Out of work? Businesses are hiring now

Restaurants reopening?

Moore is optimistic, hoping for restaurants to reopen in May or June.

"When the lockdowns are lifted, all the people who have been pent up in their houses are going to want to get out right away," Moore said, "and restaurants are going to want to ramp up quickly. Well, I've got a lot of good, viable people all teed up and ready to get back to work."

"Business is certainly off," said Foster Boop, owner of Stuart Coffee Co., who adjusted a sign on the door stating the shop is open with carry-out service Monday, March 23, 2020, in downtown Stuart. Boop has had to lay off and furlough employees as the coronavirus pandemic grows, but is encouraged to see some regulars and others in the community coming in for coffee and breakfast. "The biggest challenge is the unknown, not knowing how long it will last," he said.

That's taking a risk, Woodworth said. Some positions may not be around when workers come back for them.

“It’s too early to tell what long-term impacts the coronavirus is going to have on the job market because we don’t know what the job market is going to look like when the situation is contained."

Tyler Treadway is an environment reporter who specializes in issues facing the Indian River Lagoon. Support his work on TCPalm.com.  Contact him at 772-221-4219 and tyler.treadway@tcpalm.com.