Florida's CONNECT website.

Florida’s CONNECT website.

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson recently called for a federal probe of Florida’s new $63 million processing system for unemployment claims in the state, which has reportedly been making it very difficult for people who recently lost their job to claim unemployment benefits.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Nelson “asked the U.S. Department of Labor to look into launch of ‘CONNECT,’ the new system through which people seeking unemployment benefits must file their claims.”

Since the network’s debut two weeks ago, the Department of Economic Opportunity has been deluged by complaints from users who say the new system is not working. It will not let them enter needed information or give them access to pages, they say.

Users have also been frustrated by their inability to reach a customer-service representative on a telephone help line.

The state has acknowledged that some people are having problems, but it insists that the system is generally operational. It says that more than 230,000 claims have been successfully filed so far.

There is no way to accurately say how many people have been prevented from filing because the system does not track that.

At the root of the problem is the information management company that created the system. The Palm Beach Post reported earlier this month that CONNECT was developed by “Deloitte Consulting, which has had problems in recent years with technology contracts in California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.”

In Massachusetts, state officials unveiled a $46 million unemployment benefits system created by Deloitte that was two years behind schedule, $6 million over budget, and plagued with a host of glitches that have caused problems for thousands seeking benefits. In many cases, the problems echo Florida’s, as claimants wait on hold for hours or are disconnected when they call the state office for help.

Concerned about the ongoing barrage of complaints, the Massachusetts Senate’s Committee on Post Audit and Oversight has scheduled an Oct. 28 hearing on problems with the rollout.

A legislative committee also moved this week to create a special commission to investigate how state information technology contracts are awarded and managed.

New York-based Deloitte LLP is one of the nation’s largest management and information-technology consulting firms. It’s among a handful of corporate giants providing information technology services to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Internal Revenue Service, as part of the Oct. 1 rollout of health exchanges.

On the day the new jobless claims website was launched, The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau reported several stories about problems with the site all the while state officials reported the site’s launch was successful. According to the Times/Herald: 

More than 100 people packed the unemployment office on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater Wednesday, with some complaining they had waited for more than an hour.

Michelle Mattock, 31, said she was laid off two weeks ago from her job as a certified nursing assistant and has tried since then to get benefits for herself and her 10-year-old son.

She was blocked from the benefits page on the state website. So she tried to get her questions answered by phone. No luck.

Finally, she went to the unemployment center, where a staffer redirected her back to a phone line.

“It’s hopeless,” Mattock said, adding that she is out of money and has nothing to live on. “There are no answers. Ever.”

It was more of the same in Tallahassee, where several people told the Times/Herald that they had been blocked as well.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I need this money,” said Germaine Mells, a 49-year-old former nurse. Mells said she spent four hours on a computer, but still hadn’t managed to get her weekly claim of $87 processed so she could pay her electric bill.

According to the Sentinel,  the executive director of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, Jesse Panuccio, said in a statement that “the agency was working ‘around the clock to ensure the needs of every claimant are addressed.’”

A couple years ago, state lawmakers slashed unemployment benefits in Florida. The reduction, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, cut maximum state benefits to 23 weeks from 26 when the jobless rate is 10.5 percent or higher.

Because of the 2011 law, once unemployment numbers decrease, so would the maximum amount of time someone can stay on unemployment. If unemployment dips as low as 5 percent, Floridians can only get benefits for up to 12 weeks.