By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Florida’s new unemployment website–CONNECT—has been riddled with problems since it launched two months ago. Since then, there hasn’t been much improvement and the call centers created to help people who can’t navigate the website have also been problematic. On top of all that, thousands of Floridians will lose their federal unemployment benefits by the start of the New Year.
Florida’s new $63 million unemployment website has been generating a lot of complaints since it launched on Oct. 15 of this year.
According to The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, “because of a 2011 law passed by the Legislature, recipients must register online, a requirement that federal officials this year found violated the civil rights of the unemployed.”
Regardless, state officials pressed on and the website has been struggling to provide timely benefits to Florida’s unemployed residents.
The Times/Herald reported this week:
With the CONNECT launch addled with technical glitches, receiving benefits on time was made impossible for many. Thousands of complaints flooded the offices of Gov. Rick Scott, state lawmakers and officials in the Department of Economic Opportunity overseeing the website. On Thursday, Scott’s 2014 challenger for governor, Charlie Crist, joined U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton in calling for an investigation.
“The way CONNECT has been handled is pretty cold and callous,” Crist said. “These are people who are looking for work, and this is when they need their government the most. That they can’t get any answers is unconscionable.”
When asked to comment on Crist’s statement, the governor’s office referred reporters to a Wednesday statement by the DEO that disclosed that the contractor, Deloitte Consulting, paid back $1.5 million in financial restitution to the state.
“I will not rest until our contractor, Deloitte Consulting, has delivered the system Floridians were promised,” said DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio.
Still, problems persist. Over the weekend, technicians were called in to fix 16 issues. Last Tuesday night, technicians fixed another 22.
Just recently, the DEO announced it was hiring more staff to help with the unemployment system.
[The] Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has announced its hiring of 192 temporary staff members in the Reemployment Assistance program. The office has been bombarded with claimants who can’t receive their unemployment benefits since DEO launched a $63 million new unemployment website, called CONNECT, Oct. 15.
DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims said some of the new hires will staff the call center while others will work in the remaining areas of the program.
Many users have voiced frustration over busy lines and automated messages when they call into the call center.
Deloitte Consulting, the contractor hired to build the website, has until Friday, Dec. 20, to fix all remaining technical glitches. If problems aren’t resolved by then, the company will face a daily fine of $15,000 for every day that issues remain.
The problems with the state errors are likely going to be exacerbated as thousands of Floridians receiving federal unemployment assistance lose their benefits.
A federal budget deal passed by Congress last week did not include an extension of emergency unemployment benefits, meaning 75,000 jobless workers in Florida will stop receiving benefits Dec. 28 if no further action is taken.
The imminent end of benefits is the latest burden for those seeking unemployment checks in Florida.
As Gov. Rick Scott and fellow Republican lawmakers have reduced weeks of state benefits and added work search and skills test requirements as conditions of receiving benefits in recent years, unions and workers’ rights groups have grown more vocal about the difficulty of pulling down jobless benefits in Florida.
Florida Legal Services also told the Current that they have seen a spike in claimants reaching out to them for help since CONNECT launched.
A month ago, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson asked federal officials to launch a federal investigation into Florida’s sputtering unemployment program.
A couple of years ago, state lawmakers slashed unemployment benefits in Florida. The reduction, which was signed into law by 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.