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 [email protected]