TALLAHASSEE — State officials announced Saturday they will pay thousands of unemployed Florida workers who have had benefits delayed more than seven days because of technical glitches with a new government website.
"This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system," said Jesse Panuccio, who oversees the CONNECT website as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
"Some claimants have suffered and the DEO and the U.S. Department of Labor are committed to helping them through all legal and available means," Panuccio said.
The announcement came after federal labor officials arrived in Tallahassee on Friday at the behest of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Alarmed by reports of growing desperation among unpaid claimants, Nelson requested they investigate Florida's oversight of an unemployment benefits system that serves about 235,000 claimants.
"The Secretary of Labor promised me that he would send his folks to Florida to fix the mess the state has made of its unemployment benefits system and it seems he's doing exactly that," Nelson said.
Since the mid-October launch of the $63 million website that processes unemployment claims, thousands of payments have been held up by technical malfunctions.
Federal officials Saturday gave the DEO authority to pay claims that have been delayed longer than a week.
These are claims — maxing out at $275 a week — that are being reviewed because of questions of a claimant's eligibility, a case load that had grown by 25 percent since the launch of CONNECT.
Panuccio said the emergency payments would be temporary and reviewed later to ensure they went to the appropriate recipients.
"Should it later be determined that a claimant was not in fact eligible for benefits, the claimant will be responsible for reimbursing the state," Panuccio said.
That could prove to be a headache, as well as resolving what to do with the project vendor, Deloitte Consulting. Since Dec. 20, the DEO has been fining the company $15,000 a day and withholding more than $3 million until it fixes the problems. Another company, Capgemini, was hired to consult on the project.
But for claimants such as Oldsmar resident Janet Gurney, Saturday's announcement was welcome news. Since she had been laid off from Dunkin' Donuts on Dec. 10, Gurney has tried and failed to get payments from the CONNECT website.
"I don't have an income, so I'm barely getting by," Gurney said. "Maybe now I could get some grocery shopping done, pay down some bills and get an oil change. It'd be great."