Florida's unemployed have the federal government and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to thank for finally shaking loose their overdue benefits. The state's $63 million CONNECT website has been malfunctioning since its launch in mid October, leaving thousands of jobless residents without a financial lifeline. When state officials and Gov. Rick Scott failed to treat the lapse as an emergency, Nelson and the Obama administration intervened. Federal labor officials arrived in Tallahassee on Friday, and by Saturday the Scott administration said that the benefits would flow again, a reminder of the essential role the federal government plays in policing intransigent states.
There is no excuse for it to have taken three months to get emergency unemployment payments out the door. Jesse Panuccio, who oversees the CONNECT website as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, was unmoved by the desperate pleas of Florida's unemployed workers or took cues from Scott who expressed little concern over the plight of people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
The website, built by the private firm Deloitte Consulting, was so riddled with technical glitches that some claimants found it impossible to navigate and suffered significant payment delays. At one point calls to the department numbered in the hundreds of thousands every week as frustrated claimants tried in vain to get problems resolved. Floridians are in this predicament in part due to the Florida Legislature passing a wrongheaded law in 2011 requiring that jobless people apply for unemployment benefits only online. That requirement should be repealed, but the law doesn't excuse the state's failure to create an online system that works and to respond with some urgency when it didn't.
Since October, as thousands waited for their average $230 per week benefit to try to keep food on the table, a roof over their family's head and the lights on, Panuccio did little beyond pointing fingers to steer blame away from himself. First he claimed the media exaggerated the problem, and then he went after the consultant, which has been fined $15,000 per day for the problems.
Now checks will go out to thousands of Floridians who have had payments delayed more than a week due to website glitches. The federal experts who came to Tallahassee intended to get benefits flowing to claimants first and then resolve other issues. They succeeded. Yes, it will be tricky if there are people who receive unemployment benefits who later turn out not to be eligible, but the state will have to deal with those case by case. This is a mess Florida made for itself, and it took the federal government to show up to get the state to act.