Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Business

Florida blames troubled unemployment website entirely on vendor; feds heading here to help

TALLAHASSEE — Three months after its debut, Florida's $63 million unemployment benefits website is showing signs of improvement but falls far short of adequately serving claimants who depend on it, state officials testified Wednesday before a Senate panel.

"The rollout of the new computer system has not gone as hoped or as promised by the vendor," said Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity. "And no one is more disappointed or frustrated about that than the hardworking staff at DEO."

Panuccio gave no indication of when the CONNECT website will be fixed or who will resolve problems that have delayed the maximum $275 weekly payments for thousands of claimants since mid October.

On Tuesday night, Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson announced officials with the U.S. Department of Labor will arrive later this week to "help fix" the website and won't leave until the problems are resolved. The initial vendor, Deloitte Consulting, has hired 10 additional programmers to work on the project. In addition, Panuccio announced a $365,000 contract with a second vendor, Capgemini.

In a more guarded presentation than he gave senators in November, Panuccio on Wednesday directed all blame at Deloitte Consulting. No Deloitte officials joined him at the podium, as they did two months ago, a further sign of how fractured, and potentially litigious, their relationship has become.

For now, more problematic for Panuccio are numbers he disclosed to senators showing dubious progress on the website.

Claims that have questions have increased considerably. Because of complications caused by the technical glitches, Panuccio said the number of these cases has climbed to about 60,000 — an increase of between 17 percent to 25 percent.

In addition, calls to DEO have remained persistently high. After a dramatic drop from the first-week high of 1.3 million total calls, the volume of calls flatlined to about 300,000. They have dipped in recent weeks, but the length of time on each call is longer than ever.

"So we're able to answer fewer unique calls," Panuccio said.

The nonprofit National Employment Law Project estimated unemployed Floridians may have been denied more than $22 million in benefits in October and November after CONNECT launched.

As delays persist, lawmakers are getting flooded with complaints.

"Obviously, we've been getting questions on this," said Sen. Andy Gardiner, chair of the Senate's transportation, tourism and economic development committee before Wednesday's hearing, which was attended by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Despite growing frustration among some of their constituents, however, senators didn't challenge Panuccio, a 30-year-old lawyer whose previous job was as Gov. Rick Scott's general counsel.

Instead, senators voiced support for Panuccio's premise that the problems are Deloitte's fault.

"(Deloitte) appears to be very much in default, and yet there is no way to restore the reputational damage that's done to your department, to the state, to this Legislature because of their failure," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

Panuccio said the state may try to "recoup costs" from Deloitte, which has been fined $15,000 a day since Dec. 20 when the DEO concluded it hadn't fixed 53 technical issues.

Deloitte has pushed back, blaming problems on system errors that aren't directly related to its website design. Panuccio firmly disagrees.

Perhaps chastened by difficulties with the federal healthcare.gov website overseen by President Barack Obama's administration, state Democratic lawmakers have been mostly subdued in their criticism, only recently saying they wouldn't trust DEO's assurances again.

Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, called the website a "dismal failure" before the hearing but raised no such objections at the proceeding. She and the committee's other Democrats left unchallenged Panuccio's assertion that the DEO was blameless.

It took Joshua Karp, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, to question Scott's accountability after the hearing.

"He has never taken responsibility," Karp said in an email blast to reporters. "Instead, all Floridians see is yet more finger-pointing from the Scott administration."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7262.

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