Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Florida officials say unemployment website is nearly fixed, but doubts persist

floridajobs.org

TALLAHASSEE — State officials who prematurely celebrated a new unemployment benefits website are saying now that the defects that kept thousands of Floridians from getting benefits since October are mostly fixed.

Officials with Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity who oversee the CONNECT project say the number of jobless claims stuck in the system for more than a week dropped from more than 58,000 to fewer than 5,000 last month.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said CONNECT project manager Tom McCullion this week. "We're just in a phenomenal position today serving our claimants."

Yet most of the improvement has nothing to do with the DEO, said Alí R. Bustamante, a professor at Florida International University's center for labor research.

Starting Jan. 1, 73,000 Floridians lost their federal long-term unemployment benefits when Congress didn't renew the program. That, combined with a reduction of state benefits, wiped away 17 weeks of unemployment eligibility practically overnight, hitting Florida especially hard because it leads the nation in long-term unemployment.

"That accounts for the drop," Bustamante said. "There was a lot of confusion last month, and a lot of people didn't know what the limit for unemployment compensation was. They know now, so they aren't filing claims."

DEO officials, however, appear eager to take full credit.

In 15 separate news releases, between Feb. 7 and Feb. 27, DEO officials said the lower number of pending cases was "a result of multiple factors: system fixes, DEO-implemented (solutions), increased staff productivity, and increased staff."

Not once did the releases mention that fewer Floridians qualify for unemployment benefits.

"That's definitely disingenuous," Bustamante said.

In response to questions about the lower number of pending cases, DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims for the first time acknowledged that the elimination of the federal long-term unemployment program would result in fewer cases.

But while that "may contribute to a lesser amount of incoming (claims) that need to be (reviewed and processed), this is not a factor for the dramatic drop," she said in an email Thursday.

Sims reiterated that the drop was brought on more by a combination of fixes, increased staff and higher productivity. But it's still not clear how well the $63 million CONNECT system is functioning. The state started adding 330 new employees in January to expedite the review of claims — at a cost of $165,000 a week.

Sen. Bill Nelson said U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told him this week that it might be another month or so before a key automated function of the website is "fully working and in place."

"I still believe an independent party has to get to the bottom of why this mess has happened," Nelson said in an email statement.

From the start, DEO officials have exaggerated CONNECT's viability. When the website debuted Oct. 15, job centers across Florida warned DEO officials that claimants couldn't log on or file claims. Undeterred, McCullion declared it a success.

The positive spin continued when DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio told state senators in early November that the media was exaggerating problems.

Complaints from thousands of claimants such as Robin Hopf of Palm Harbor countered the spin. In letters to Scott and other officials, Hopf detailed her troubles. She lost $1,100 in wrongfully denied claims after losing a temp job in health care in October. Forced from her apartment, she has stayed with a succession of friends since November.

"My life has been violated," Hopf said in an interview with the Times/Herald.

It wasn't until Dec. 20 that the DEO began publicly acknowledging problems. It started fining the contractor, Deloitte Consulting, $15,000 a day for ongoing problems. The U.S. Department of Labor intervened last month, forcing the DEO to pay claims delayed longer than a week.

DEO officials said this week that only four of 133 technical defects remain and that the website is performing better than the system it replaced.

That's a dubious distinction. Before CONNECT, Florida's compensation system was failing. In 2012, the state's "recipiency rate" — the proportion of unemployed people who actually receive jobless benefits — was 16 percent, the nation's lowest.

A 2011 law requiring a 45-question "skills review" and an online-only application system combined to thwart thousands of applicants. By 2013, Florida consistently failed to meet federal standards for paying claims, a violation of the Social Security Act.

Federal benchmarks require that states pay 87 percent of initial claims within 14 days. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Florida paid only 76 percent of initial claims on time last year, failing to meet standards every month.

Sims said the 2008 recession swamped the system with an "unprecedented workload," a problem that was addressed by replacing the old system with CONNECT.

In the new system's first three months, Florida paid only 46 percent of initial claims on time.

"The (DEO) data submitted may contain inaccuracies due to the implementation of the new system and that DEO will submit revised reports as inaccuracies are identified," Sims wrote in an email.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@tampabay.com.

Florida officials say unemployment website is nearly fixed, but doubts persist 02/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 11:01pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. After offseason of work hard, play hard, DeSean Jackson ready to produce for Bucs

    Bucs

    TAMPA — There's no telling what DeSean Jackson will do once he gets a football in his hands. Perhaps that's why a camera crew followed his every move Wednesday while the Bucs' new $30 million receiver stood on a step of the hot tub that empties into a spacious, azure pool at his new, sprawling five-bedroom home in …

    DeSean Jackson jokes around with girlfriend Kayla Phillips at their Tampa home as a crew from HBO’s Hard Knocks documents their day.
  2. Trump announces $10 billion Foxconn plant in Wisconsin

    Politics

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that electronics giant Foxconn will build a $10 billion factory in Wisconsin that's expected to initially create 3,000 jobs, the largest economic development project in state history.

    President Donald Trump embraces Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the East Room of the White House during an announcement Wednesday that Foxconn is going to build a plant in Wisconsin.
  3. Playoff chase heats up for Rays with key series at Yankees up first (w/ video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG

    It was important that Evan Longoria crushed a two-run homer in the sixth inning Wednesday and Steven Souza Jr. blasted a solo shot off the farthest catwalk an inning later.

    Adeiny Hechavarria (11) and Tim Beckham (1) celebrate the double play to end the top of the sixth inning. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
  4. Conservatives come to Sessions' defense amid Trump attacks

    Politics

    WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans and influential conservatives rallied around Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday as President Donald Trump kept up his public pelting of the nation's top law enforcement officer and left his future in doubt.

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions
  5. Jones: Alex Cobb proves again why he's Rays' stopper, no matter how long he's here (w/ video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG

    If a team hopes to hang around the pennant race, it better have an ace. A stopper. A pitcher it can count on every fifth day to stop the bleeding, keep a winning streak going or flat-out win a game that a team flat-out needs to win.

    Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) throwing the first inning. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]