Make us your home page

In paying late claims for jobless, why did Florida wait so long?

TALLAHASSEE — It took Florida officials more than three months to decide to pay overdue jobless benefits to about 10,000 unemployed workers, many of whom went without checks since October because of a defective online registration system.

When faced with a similar challenge, California officials started cutting checks after just three weeks.

Two states, two glitchy websites, two vastly different timetables on when to pay overdue benefits.

"This just emphasizes the corporate mind-set here under Gov. Rick Scott: Let's make sure poor people don't get the extra $5," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "California decided that it wanted to take care of its residents. Florida had them wait through Christmas, the New Year, most of January."

Both states recently launched websites that process unemployment claims. Both sites were designed by Deloitte Consulting and struggled with error messages, long wait times and disconnected sessions.

But while California announced in September that it would pay claims first and verify them later, Florida waited until Saturday — more than three months after the CONNECT website launched — to reach a similar conclusion.

From how Florida officials tell it, their decision was possible only after getting clearance from federal officials, who have ultimate authority in how the money is spent.

"The U.S. Department of Labor today granted (Florida's) Department of Economic Opportunity the authority to move forward" with the payments, said the DEO's executive director, Jesse Panuccio, in a statement on Saturday, adding that claimants would be responsible for reimbursing the state for overpayments.

DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims didn't respond to questions asking for clarification, so it's unclear why Florida relied on federal authority to make the payments.

California officials did not. And the U.S. Department of Labor instructs states that in situations where payments can't be made in a timely manner, as the federal Social Security Act requires, they make payments based on "a presumption of continuing eligibility."

Instead of cutting checks to unemployed Floridians, Florida officials paid $500,000 in overtime to state workers to try to process claims. The state later announced it was hiring an extra 250 people to review and verify claims, while hiring a total of 80 people to help staff phone centers, at a cost of $165,000 per week.

The result: Florida officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on staff to prevent the state from paying unemployment benefits to people who might be ineligible.

"That sent up flags for us that Florida saw that as its first remedy," said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the unemployed. "If you were spending money like that to process tens of thousands of backlogged claims, it would still take weeks and months.

"Meanwhile, the savings aren't clear," Wentworth said.

This reluctance to "presume eligibility" underscores Florida's sensitivity to those who pay for jobless benefits: Florida businesses. While the federal government subsidizes Florida's unemployment system, including salaries and the $63 million CONNECT website, Florida pays benefits from a trust fund financed by taxes on employers. Rates levied on companies vary between a minimum of $47.20 per employee to $432 per employee. In 2009, the unemployment crisis drained the trust fund, requiring Florida to borrow from the U.S. government, which could have triggered higher tax rates on businesses.

But thanks, in part, to a 2011 law pushed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and supported by Scott, the demand on the trust fund was lessened by making it harder for the unemployed to gain access to benefits.

The new law requires recipients to take a 45-minute skills test and file proof every week that they've sought work from five employers, the highest number required in the nation. The law also cuts the number of weeks people are eligible for unemployment assistance based on the state's unemployment rate and makes it easier for the state to deny benefits for "misconduct."

Currently, Florida offers 16 weeks of benefits because the state's unemployment rate sits at 6.4 percent. If the unemployment rate drops, benefits drop, too.

In the months after the 2011 law went into effect, the rate of those unemployed receiving benefits fell to 15 percent, one of the lowest rates in the nation. After CONNECT launched, it dipped even lower, to 13.4 percent.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.


Making a claim



Click: "File a Reemployment Assistance Claim."

Log in to CONNECT:

You will need your Social Security Number and existing 4-digit PIN.

Type: The same PIN if you wish to keep it, or create a new one. Then create security questions. Once you enter the information in Step 5, you will be directed to the next page. Here you will find any weeks available to claim.

Click: "Request Benefit Payment" in the left column to claim your weeks.

In paying late claims for jobless, why did Florida wait so long? 01/22/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 11:20pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Carrollwood fitness center employs scientific protocol to help clients


    In 2005, Al Roach and Virginia Phillips, husband and wife, opened 20 Minutes to Fitness in Lakewood Ranch, and last month they opened the doors to their new location in Carrollwood.

    Preston Fisher, a personal fitness coach at 20 Minutes To Fitness, stands with an iPad while general manager/owner Angela Begin conducts an equipment demonstration. The iPad is used to track each client's information and progress. I also included one shot of just the equipment. The center recently opened in Carrollwood. Photo by Danielle Hauser.
  2. Olive Tree branches out to Wesley Chapel


    WESLEY CHAPEL — When it came time to open a second location of The Olive Tree, owners John and Donna Woelfel, decided that Wesley Chapel was the perfect place.

    The Olive Tree expands its offerings of "ultra premium?€ extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) to a second location in Wesley Chapel. Photo by Danielle Hauser.
  3. Massachusetts firm buys Tampa's Element apartment tower

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — Downtown Tampa's Element apartment tower sold this week to a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company that plans to upgrade the skyscraper's amenities and operate it long-term as a rental community.

    The Element apartment high-rise at 808 N Franklin St. in downtown Tampa has been sold to a Northland Investment Corp., a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company. JIM DAMASKE  |  Times
  4. New York town approves Legoland proposal


    GOSHEN, N.Y. — New York is one step closer to a Lego dreamland. Goshen, a small town about fifty miles northwest of the Big Apple, has approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park.

    A small New York town, Goshen approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park. Legoland Florida is in Winter Haven. [Times file  photo]
  5. Jordan Park to get $20 million makeover and new senior housing

    Real Estate


    Times Staff Writer

    ST. PETERSBURG —The St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which bought back the troubled Jordan Park public housing complex this year, plans to spend about $20 million to improve the 237-unit property and construct a new three-story building for …

    Jordan Park, the historic public housing complex, is back in the hands of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. The agency is working to improve the 237-unit complex. But the latest plan to build a new three-story building for seniors will mean 31 families have to find new homes. [LARA CERRI   |   Tampa Bay Times]