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Major revamp of state unemployment system could cause delays

People filing for unemployment benefits may face clogged phone lines and other delays in coming weeks as the state launches an overhaul of its creaky, 30-year-old unemployment system.

The $62.8 million revamp comes after Massachusetts and California faced huge problems with their own overhauls by the same contractor, New York-based Deloitte, including erroneously cut benefits and other glitches that forced employees to process claims by hand and cost taxpayers millions of dollars, according to news reports in those states.

The state's Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment system, does not anticipate similar problems, said Monica Russell, an agency spokeswoman, adding that Florida's overhaul came in under budget and on schedule.

The new platform, called CONNECT, comes after decades of relying on a fragmented system that was so outdated and cumbersome, it was difficult to comply with federal rules or find staff who could work with the antiquated programming code.

About 235,000 people collect unemployment per week.

"The system has been rigorously tested to help ensure its quality and identify any issues in advance of go live," Russell said. "We have been assured that the lessons learned from other states are being used to prevent similar issues from occurring in Florida."

Deloitte did not respond to a phone call to its media office.

Florida has taken several steps to ensure the revamp goes smoothly, despite the necessity of shutting down the unemployment website for six days while data is transferred between the old and new platforms.

The site went dark Wednesday and is scheduled to be available Tuesday, when claims processing will reopen.

To prepare people for the change, the department sent direct mail to every claimant in addition to 200,000 emails. Florida also hired 250 workers to help employees and recipients navigate the new system.

The new site will include anti-fraud features and enable people to check their claim statuses, file appeals and get their questions answered in the same place.

Maurice Emsellem, program director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group, said he's skeptical that Florida — which already has a reputation for making it difficult to get benefits — will do better than other states that have struggled with their new systems.

Unemployment payments in Florida are among the lowest in the nation, at a maximum of $275 per week.

The U.S. Department of Labor also criticized Florida for its unemployment benefits practices after a 2011 policy required virtually everyone to apply for unemployment benefits online.

Lauren Jones, a spokeswoman for the agency that oversees unemployment benefits in Massachusetts, said some problems are to be expected with a project launch so large.

"Contrary to published reports, hundreds of claimants were not cut off from benefits in Massachusetts due to system failure," she said. "The new system is working."

Major revamp of state unemployment system could cause delays 10/09/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 10, 2013 4:35pm]
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