Sen. Bill Nelson asks the Labor Department to look into Florida's unemployment benefits program following a New York Times article. (Photo via Senate Democrats)

Sen. Bill Nelson asks the Labor Department to look into Florida’s unemployment benefits program following a New York Times article. (Photo via Senate Democrats)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Once again, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has asked federal officials to look into Florida’s troubled unemployment benefits system.

In October, the state launched a new $63 million website that has been riddled with problems and has kept many unemployed Floridians from receiving jobless benefits.

Following the site’s bungled launch, Nelson asked a federal agency to look into what was going on.

This week, Nelson repeated his request.

According to The Tampa Bay Times:

“Any continued problems in processing unemployment claims only delays financial help to those who need it most due to misfortune,” Nelson said in a letter to U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez. “I would appreciate hearing back to you by Jan. 14.” [sic]

Nelson first asked Perez to investigate Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity’s Oct. 15 launch of the CONNECT web on Oct. 30. By then, thousands of recipients complained they couldn’t log on or contact DEO employees for help.

In Tuesday’s letter, Nelson says Perez told him then that the DEO promised that the website’s unresolved issues would be “fixed and the system stabilized by mid-to-late December.”

“You also noted, ‘should we learn any additional information suggesting that Florida’s issues are not being resolved, we will work with DEO to ensure the state is employing methods of administration that result in unemployment benefits being paid when due,’” Nelson said in the letter.

Part of Nelson’s impetus to check-in with the Labor Department again was a front page New York Times article about problems with state unemployment benefits websites around the country.

In The New York Times article, Florida was a key example of “how a lack of funding in many states and a shortage of information technology specialists in public service jobs routinely lead to higher costs, botched systems and infuriating technical problems that fall hardest on the poor, the jobless and the neediest.”

Florida’s website trouble stems from a 2011 law that required people to sign up online for unemployment benefits. Before the law, 40 percent of the applications were done by phone.

In April, in response to a complaint by the nonprofit Florida Legal Services, the federal Department of Labor found that the online requirement violated the civil rights of people with language barriers and disabilities. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity lashed back, accusing the federal agency of being overly politicized.

The state agency’s website shows more than 78,000 calls came in to the customer service center last Thursday alone. Of those, fewer than 6,500 callers spoke with a representative. More than 300 customer service representatives and claims adjudicators will be hired in the coming months, the agency said last week.

The department blamed its vendor, Deloitte Consulting, which was also responsible for the projects in California and Massachusetts. The agency issued $6 million in penalties against the company, withheld a $3 million payment and on Dec. 23 began fining it $15,000 a day until the problems are fixed.

After weeks of fines and ongoing media coverage of the website’s human toll, the state has decided to look to another contractor to fix the issues.

According to The Orlando Sentinel, “the state said it hoped the contractor – Paris-based Capgemini – would be on the job by the end of the week” – a signal state officials are giving up on Deloitte.