By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Florida’s troubled multi-million dollar unemployment benefits website is going to get help from the federal government.
Since the $60 million website, CONNECT, launched in October it has kept many jobless Floridians from obtaining state assistance. The website has been riddled with errors and has only improved marginally in the past couple of months.
This week, Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, told state lawmakers his agency’s new website is improving. However, federal officials are heading to the state capitol to fix the website until it is completely fixed.
On Tuesday night, Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson announced officials with the U.S. Department of Labor will arrive later this week to “help fix” the website and won’t leave until the problems are resolved. The initial vendor, Deloitte Consulting, has hired 10 additional programmers to work on the project. In addition, Panuccio announced a $365,000 contract with a second vendor, Capgemini.
In a more guarded presentation than he gave senators in November, Panuccio on Wednesday directed all blame at Deloitte Consulting. No Deloitte officials joined him at the podium, as they did two months ago, a further sign of how fractured, and potentially litigious, their relationship has become.
For now, more problematic for Panuccio are numbers he disclosed to senators showing dubious progress on the website.
Claims that have questions have increased considerably. Because of complications caused by the technical glitches, Panuccio said the number of these cases has climbed to about 60,000 — an increase of between 17 percent to 25 percent.
In addition, calls to DEO have remained persistently high. After a dramatic drop from the first-week high of 1.3 million total calls, the volume of calls flatlined to about 300,000. They have dipped in recent weeks, but the length of time on each call is longer than ever.
This slow-moving improvement has upset lawmakers in both parties.
During Panuccio’s presentation this week, both Democrats and Republicans in the Florida Senate said the status of the website was unacceptable.
Democrats blame Gov. Rick Scott’s new unemployment law and state-level mismanagement for the website problems. Republicans lay the blame on Deloitte– the contractor hired by the state to create the new website.
Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said delays of more than two months to receive benefits in some cases are pushing people into poverty.
“Gov. Rick Scott is responsible for many people being forced into foreclosure, not being able to provide food for themselves and their families, and not having a roof over their head,” Thompson said.
Some Republicans are growing frustrated as well. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, suggested “freezing out” Deloitte, the contractor responsible for Connect, from new state government contracts as long as the system continues to have problems.
State officials have docked Deloitte’s pay and kept $3 million owed the company. However, these incentives to get the site working properly hasn’t done the trick.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has contacted the U.S. Labor Department to intervene multiple times and now the federal agency has stepped in.
According to a press release from Nelson’s office,
“The secretary of labor has assured me his key staff that handle unemployment insurance will be in Tallahassee by the end of the week; and, they’ll stay there until the problems are fixed,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a statement tonight in response to a number of media inquiries.
…U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez spoke with Nelson this evening, as a follow-up to the lawmaker’s recent written request for federal action. Perez conveyed that the initial purpose of his team’s trip will be to try to institute a way to pay those with continuing claims now and fix problems with the Florida system later, Nelson said.
…Nelson said he believes Perez will have a progress report perhaps as early as next week.
According to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project, jobless Floridians may have been denied more than $22 million in unemployment benefits in October and November of last year alone while the state’s website problems continue.