TALLAHASSEE — The day after Florida launched a $63 million website to process unemployment benefits for thousands of residents, state officials sounded only positive notes.
Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Jessica Sims called the debut of the CONNECT site a success. It had processed about 50,000 claims in two days and workers fielded thousands of calls.
Yet it's not clear how the website is handling the demand of a system with 235,000 claimants. Sims said she didn't know how many people failed to file a claim or how many phone calls weren't picked up.
Context matters because a far different portrayal of CONNECT's debut was playing across social media and in claims offices across the state. Facebook and Twitter were filled with complaints about wait times, system crashes and error messages — reviews echoing those that met the Oct. 1 debut of the Obamacare insurance exchange.
CONNECT is supposed to be a big upgrade over the old system, which was 30 years old and difficult to use. DEO officials are quick to point out that an extra 250 workers were enlisted to assist people with the new website.
Still, numerous anecdotes suggest that wasn't enough.
More than 100 people packed the unemployment office on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater on Wednesday, with some complaining they had waited for more than an hour.
Michelle Mattock, 31, said she was laid off two weeks ago from her job as a certified nursing assistant and has tried since then to get benefits for herself and her 10-year-old son.
She was blocked from the benefits page on the state website. So she tried to get her questions answered by phone. No luck.
Finally, she went to the unemployment center, where a staffer redirected her back to a phone line.
"It's hopeless," Mattock said, adding that she is out of money and has nothing to live on. "There are no answers. Ever."
It was more of the same in Tallahassee, where several people told the Times/Herald that they had been blocked as well.
"I don't know what's going on, but I need this money," said Germaine Mells, a 49-year-old former nurse. Mells said she spent four hours on a computer, but still hadn't managed to get her weekly claim of $87 processed so she could pay her electric bill.
An employee at the job center, followed by a security guard, told a reporter he was forbidden to talk to recipients.
"Miss, you can't talk to him," the security guard told one recipient during an interview, causing her to walk away.
The job center employee said Jim McShane, the CEO of Workforce Plus who oversees the job centers in Tallahassee, instructed them to forbid interviews.
"I didn't make that decision," McShane said later. "We're an open federal program so I don't know why they would do that."
McShane said there were several technical glitches on Tuesday when the site launched, and some had persisted. One major issue is that the CONNECT site wasn't recognizing Social Security numbers and PIN codes claimants need to log into the site.
Sims said since its launch, the website has not crashed, despite a phone recording from the state's 1-800 number late Tuesday and Facebook postings that said otherwise.
Problems were anticipated. In a letter sent to claimants two weeks ago, the DEO warned of long lines and extended wait times. The contractor of the CONNECT site, Deloitte, has had similar issues with unemployment system overhauls in Massachusetts and California.
Deloitte's contract with Florida, signed in 2011, shows it has been amended several times. The final rollout is 10 months later and $6.4 million more expensive than initially anticipated, the contract shows.
Sims said cost increases were a result of changes to the scope of work required from Deloitte. The delay, she added, came at no extra cost to taxpayers and was a result of a "corrective action plan." She did not specify why such a plan was needed.
The website underscores tension between the U.S. Labor Department and how Florida processes unemployment claims under Gov. Rick Scott.
Federal officials say Florida violated the civil rights of unemployed individuals because it required them to apply online for benefits.
Federal officials couldn't be reached because of the government shutdown.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or email@example.com