TALLAHASSEE — Call it the Economic Miracle That Wasn't.
Florida's ongoing claims for unemployment benefits plummeted to the lowest level in six years from mid October to early December. The average of 20,000 fewer weekly claims from the prior nine weeks represents a plunge of 18 percent, the sharpest decline in 15 years.
Yet rather than herald an improving job market, chalk up Florida's shrinking claims numbers instead to the troubled debut of the state's unemployment claims website, CONNECT.
Since its October launch, the $63 million website has been plagued by glitches, sowing confusion and despair among many of the 235,000 claimants who file every other week to help pay for essentials like food and rent. Difficulties in logging on or navigating CONNECT have precluded thousands from collecting.
"I'm about to be thrown out on the street," said Allen Schwalb of Seminole, who was laid off from a warehouse job in October but as of last week had yet to receive any benefits despite many attempts to file. "The state now owes me $1,400 for eight weeks of unemployment. I don't know what I will do if I don't receive it soon."
It wasn't supposed to be like this. The state hired Minneapolis-based Deloitte Consulting in 2011 to upgrade and improve its claims system, which was more than 30 years old and rife with inefficiencies. The upgrades were supposed to modernize Florida's system and ultimately save millions in processing costs.
Midway through the CONNECT project, however, Deloitte lagged behind schedule. Last year, Department of Economic Opportunity officials considered firing Deloitte, which had well-publicized troubles with similar overhauls of unemployment sites in California and Massachusetts.
In response to a threat to terminate the contract, Deloitte switched project managers and hired more people in Tallahassee.
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Upon going live Oct. 15, the CONNECT site struggled anyway.
Unemployment offices were packed with those who said they couldn't log on. Phone lines were jammed. Calls were dropped. Frustration grew. Thousands of complaints flooded the offices of Gov. Rick Scott, state lawmakers and DEO officials who oversee the website. Scott's 2014 challenger for governor, Charlie Crist, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, all called for an investigation.
The DEO's executive director, Jesse Panuccio, initially blamed the media for exaggerating problems.
"Some of the press stories about CONNECT have been incomplete and focused on a narrative that is more likely to grab readers than to accurately report facts," Panuccio told the Senate's Commerce and Tourism Committee on Nov. 4.
By December, however, Panuccio conceded all was not going well. The project was no longer meeting expectations. He posted messages on the DEO's website acknowledging difficulties. After a tour of the DEO's Orlando office, Panuccio agreed his employees needed better information about what ailed the website so they could help claimants. On Dec. 20, the state announced that it began enforcing a $15,000-per-business day penalty against Deloitte and was withholding $3 million from the vendor. It will be paid when CONNECT is "fully functioning."
"While Deloitte has made progress over the last few weeks, and many claimants are able to process claims without incident, the bottom line is that the overall system is still not working properly and the base code has not been stabilized," Panuccio said in a release. "The people of Florida deserve better and, after two months, Deloitte's failure to provide this functionality is simply unacceptable."
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After enduring weeks without benefits, some claimants are barely hanging on. Valory Greenfield, staff attorney for Florida Legal Services in Miami, said last week that reports of recipients being evicted or having their vehicles repossessed continue to grow.
"The drop in claims is so dramatic and so precisely coincides with the launching of CONNECT that there can be no other explanation," Greenfield said. "This is having an effect on a huge group of people. We're very disappointed in the length of time it's taken to get these people their benefits."
Rod Ewing, who lives in New Tampa, said it took him weeks to get paid $1,100 in claims that he needed to pay bills. After several failed attempts to register online, he said he was called this month by a DEO administrator who fixed the problem after asking one basic question: whether or not he had worked after filing for his claims.
"That's all it took, but the website wasn't able to do it," Ewing said. "I'm very angry at what the state put me through with all the anxiety and late fees on car payments and my bank account balance. If I hadn't been living with my girlfriend, I would have been homeless."
Florida is notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to unemployment benefits, which makes CONNECT's failings even more glaring.
The state's proportion of unemployed people who actually get jobless benefits was 16 percent in 2012, the lowest in the nation. Because of a 2011 law passed by the Legislature and signed by Scott, recipients must register online, a requirement that a federal report found earlier this year violated the civil rights of the unemployed.
"Florida in the last few years has made it virtually impossible to access benefits," said Maurice Emsellem, a staff director with the National Employment Law Project. "The digital divide is a reality, so why on earth would you require to register online? It's not fair access."
With his back claims finally paid, Ewing must now worry about surviving without benefits.
Florida is one of six states that provides job-seekers fewer than 26 weeks of coverage. Now offering 19 weeks, Florida will drop to 16 weeks starting in January. Under Florida law, the lower the unemployment rate (which has fallen to 6.4 percent), the fewer weeks of compensation an unemployed person receives.
Once federal unemployment compensations expire, coverage for Ewing and 73,000 other Floridians is immediately eliminated.
"I don't know what I'm going to do next," Ewing said. "With no money coming in, my plans are to continue to look for work. And pray."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]