Coronavirus Florida: Unemployment claims top 1M; Investigation sought
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The economic devastation inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic reached a grim milestone on Sunday, with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reporting more than 1 million workers — nearly 10 percent of the state’s workforce — having applied for unemployment benefits.
Of those claims, the DEO has paid over $700.2 million of the 452,526 unique claims — 44.1 percent — according the DEO website. Florida unemployment benefits pay up to $275 per week for up to 12 weeks, ranking the state among the lowest weekly payments and shortest duration of benefits in the country.
In Palm Beach County, unemployment jumped from 3.1 percent in February to 4.4 percent in March — a click above the state’s unemployment rate of 4.3 percent. Data for April has not yet been released.
The DEO’s processing and payment computer program — CONNECT — has been plagued with glitches for years. The sudden deluge of applications in April overwhelmed the system. The CONNECT system often crashed and the average wait time for those who attempted to call reached six hours.
The DEP spent over $79 million on a contract with a call center to assist with the call, However, as of last week, workers were not allowed to wait on hold for an operator because call volume was so large.
On Monday, Nikki Fried, who leads the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and is the only Democrat on Florida’s Cabinet, sent a letter to the state’s Chief Inspector General asking for an “investigation into potential mismanagement of the CONNECT unemployment system.”
Fried cited audits and reports in 2015, 2016 and 2019 that found “major, systemic problems with CONNECT,” adding that the DEO failed to correct the problems. “Now,” Fried wrote, “$110 million of taxpayer funding is currently being spent to mitigate a portion of the failures during the pandemic.”
The $63 million CONNECT system went live in 2013 and quickly revealed flaws. In her letter, Fried blamed Gov. Ron DeSantis for the current crisis writing that DeSantis was briefed on problems with CONNECT when he took office in January 2019 but “has not acted with the urgency or transparency that the situation necessitates.”
DeSantis, who recently referred to the system as a “jalopy,” endorsed Fried’s call for an investigation and said he would order the Inspector General to investigate the unemployment claims system.
At a press conference on Monday evening, DeSantis highlighted recent efforts made by the DEO. Engineers and computer programmers are working round the clock, seven days a week to eliminate glitches that cause bottlenecks in the system, DeSantis said.
In early April, 72 servers were brought online and 2,000 workers from other state agencies were drafted to help input data from paper applications. In mid-April, the DEO hired and trained an additional 500 call-center staff after more that 3.8 million calls came in the first week of April, DeSantis said.
To speed up payments, DeSantis also suspended the biweekly “actively seeking work” reporting requirement, meaning those receiving benefits no longer need to re-certify their efforts to find work to receive benefits.
The DEO also now takes the CONNECT system offline at night and on weekends to allow the program to process and pay claims more quickly.
DeSantis denied that he had been made aware of the extent of the system’s glitches early in his administration but said CONNECT was “not worth the amount of money put in.”
Asked if he would consider suspending Deloitte Consulting, the company that has been paid over $70 million to install CONNECT, DeSantis said he would “entertain that” depending on the findings of the Inspector General.
As for the findings in the audits and reports referenced by Fried, DeSantis said the problems now overwhelming the system were beyond those cited in the audits. Still, DeSantis said he did not know if or how much the existing problems contributed to what has happened.
“Even with a mild recession it would have had problems,” DeSantis said.