TALLAHASSEE — A day after the debut of Florida's $63 million unemployment benefits website, the man in charge gave a sunny appraisal.
"The system was up and running 100 percent of the time," project manager Tom McCullion wrote Oct. 16 to his agency's top brass. "The two issues that caused claimants to receive an error message have been resolved."
"Woop woop … congrats!" wrote one colleague. "You rock!" said another.
Closer to the ground, others warned of a meltdown.
"We have our off-duty police officer now . . . to handle the irate customers," an executive director for a Pensacola job counseling center reported. "It's going about like we expected — not very well."
A Times/Herald review of nearly 1,000 of McCullion's emails reveals a stark division between Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity and job centers across the state helping the unemployed navigate the new CONNECT system. McCullion and other top officials publicly declared an early victory. Those at job centers warned of an unfolding disaster.
"I'm dealing with chaos," said one.
Time has proved the Cassandras correct: CONNECT was a fiasco from Day 1. Federal officials intervened. In December, the DEO began fining the website's contractor $15,000 a day because of technical glitches. Thousands of job seekers went weeks and months without the money they need for essentials like rent, food and bills.
Through it all, information about what went wrong has been restricted within the agency. Three days after CONNECT's launch, an internal memo warned staff to "not convey the wrong message to the public." If they wanted to advise claimants that the system was down, they needed to wait for confirmation from management.
As McCullion's emails show, the DEO was hardly a source of reliable information. Top officials insisted within hours of the launch that CONNECT was a success and users were encountering only minor issues — a drumbeat of misinformation that continued for weeks.
"The senior management team is very happy with the launch," McCullion said the day after CONNECT's launch.
"They were lying like dogs," said Ron Politte, 58, of Port Richey, who lost his manufacturing job in September. "I spent weeks calling every day, begging someone to help me, and they were saying that everything is fine? Really? Not me. I knew there was a problem."
DEO officials say they have greatly reduced the backlog of claims from a high of about 60,000 to about 11,000 as of last week. But much of that progress was made possible by the 330 employees the agency hired in January — at a cost of $165,000 a month. With CONNECT's budget climbing, and the DEO openly feuding with the contractor, it's not clear when the system will operate as promised.
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Heading into October, McCullion was considering his next move.
By state government standards, he was a short-timer. In 2010, he was hired away from the Gartner Group, a consulting company that recommended Florida upgrade its unemployment benefits system. He was paid a starting salary of $124,992 to manage the CONNECT project, a post that wasn't advertised.
It was a complicated assignment, involving the conversion of 2 billion lines of data for a system that processed 3 million claims a year for about 1.1 million people. He helped choose the contractor, Deloitte Consulting, which was to be paid about $40 million.
As the Oct. 15 launch neared, McCullion estimated his last day at the DEO would be "around" Nov. 8 and wanted to know how much vacation he could get before he left — after cashing in 480 hours of unused vacation.
CONNECT went live the next day. And McCullion, 56, never left.
"We are aware there are minor issues resulting in some error messages that our technical team is aggressively working," reported McCullion's boss, Tom Clendenning, in an email to staff shortly after CONNECT launched.
Bruce Ferguson, CEO of CareerSource Northeast Florida, a nonprofit that operates job centers in the Jacksonville area, objected to that characterization in a return email.
"With all due respect, I don't think the issues are 'minor' when we have numerous clients throughout career centers across the state getting error messages and experiencing other issues with the system," Ferguson wrote. "Very few clients have actually had 'success' in filing or claiming weeks . . . it isn't a minor issue!"
A Bartow jobs center reported that wait times for an 800 number were over 20 minutes and had been as high as 45 minutes. Only one person all morning had been able to complete the filing process. Four out of more than 150 filed successfully in Pensacola. That afternoon, a DEO training coordinator in Tallahassee warned of growing tension.
"These customers are getting mad," said Erica Mott. "Pretty soon, they will start to do more than ask questions . . . they (will) start to yell and talk to the press."
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Clendenning remained upbeat, replying to a number of complaints by stating "the new system looks better and better as the day moves on . . . when we get the final counts for today (maybe tomorrow morning), I think you will be impressed."
Already, media outlets were reporting disarray. On the day CONNECT launched, the Times/Herald wrote about several unemployed workers who couldn't log on and sampled from dozens of all-cap messages left on the DEO's Facebook page depicting widespread frustration.
"We know how the press works and they only sell papers when they focus on the negative," a colleague wrote to McCullion that night referring to the article. "Great job doing some pretty amazing stuff for Day 1!"
The next day, McCullion dismissed the critical reviews in an email, saying, "Of course, here is what the press said."
He proceeded to send emails declaring that no more major issues remained.
Only later that night did McCullion write messages that suggest he was reassessing. After a call from DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio and chief of staff Chad Poppell, McCullion said an ongoing issue with PINs might still be a problem.
"They feel there is more to this PIN issue that we are not seeing and I tend to agree," McCullion told a Deloitte consultant.
"There is just too much noise," agreed the consultant, alluding to the dozens of phone calls, tweets and Facebook messages from people who complained they were getting locked out because the system didn't recognize their PINs.
By the next day, McCullion seemed less optimistic.
"I'm starting to see our process begin to unravel," McCullion told a team of Deloitte consultants.
When asked by Deloitte's lead consultant how CONNECT was doing, McCullion replied: "Better than it very well could have been, not as good as I hoped," he said. "Some of the issues should have been caught in testing."
The state's contract with Deloitte required extensive testing. In addition, the state was paying Ernst & Young about $2 million to verify those tests. With such safeguards, how could it fail?
Later that day, McCullion was sent a list of defects with CONNECT. It identified 177 technical issues and 32 were "critical."
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It took until Dec. 20 for the DEO to fine Deloitte for all of the remaining defects. In January, there were still 49 unresolved issues. The extra staff may have helped. Unemployed workers like Politte started getting their claims again last month — especially after federal officials advised the DEO to pay delinquent benefits immediately.
Politte got paid a lump sum of $2,800, of which about $300 — or about a week's worth in benefits — was used to cover the late fees he incurred on bills while waiting for the money to arrive.
With Congress refusing to extend long-term unemployment, his benefits soon will run out and Politte says he doesn't have the time or patience to try to get that money back.
"What am I going to do, sue them?" he said. "I did everything I was supposed to, but that doesn't matter. I feel bad for all those people who were evicted and lost their homes because of all this."
Contact Michael Van Sickler at [email protected]