For jobless Floridians such as Tina Cash, the announcement that the state is finally hiring more staff to process applications for unemployment compensation should signal some hope. But any fix likely will take weeks or months to deliver, adding insult to injury for Cash and others living on the edge who desperately need the cash they are entitled to receive. The Department of Economic Opportunity's continued refusal to admit its gross failure in managing a primary safety net suggests its leaders and Gov. Rick Scott still don't appreciate their responsibility. Legislators helped create this mess in 2011 but now they should be demanding fixes for their constituents, not just watching from the sidelines.
The Tampa Bay Times' Leonora LaPeter Anton wrote Wednesday about Cash, one of the thousands of Floridians whose misfortune of losing a job through no fault of their own has been compounded by the state's chronic ineptness. Systemic inefficiencies and inadequate backstops mean Cash has collected only a fraction of the more than $2,000 in unemployment compensation she is due. That has forced her to switch apartments, depend on friends and sell furniture and jewelry while looking for work to support her toddler. Last year, Florida's percentage of all unemployed people who actually receive jobless benefits was 16 percent — the lowest in the nation. And only one in three who apply for the benefits, which average about $230 a week, receives them.
For more than a year, DEO officials and Republican leaders have been unconcerned, blaming everyone but themselves. Federal Labor Department officials in April said Florida's implementation of a 2011 state law requiring applicants to file online and take a "skills assessment" made it difficult to apply, particularly for some non-English speakers and the disabled. The state agency countered it was the target of a political attack and called for a congressional investigation.
After rolling out a flawed $63 million computer system known as CONNECT, DEO head Jesse Panuccio claimed in November that the media was exaggerating the problem — ignoring the thousands of complaints that had been logged in government offices. Last week, Panuccio finally acknowledged the need to hire more staff to process claims. That move came roughly 10 days after he began fining Deloitte, the private vendor hired to build the computer system, and wrote a scorching public memo on the company's performance. Now Deloitte is pushing back, assuring lengthy litigation but little else.
Lost in the discussion are people such as Cash and Melissa Perkins, a 35-year-old Sarasota resident who has had to ask others to pay her rent because she hasn't received benefits or been able to find a new job. Perkins told Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Michael Van Sickler last week: "I've worked my entire life since I was 15, and I've never asked anyone for anything. What can I do?"
Unemployment compensation is insurance employers pay so that when they lay someone off, that worker will have a safety net until they can find a new job. Government's responsibility is to get those benefits to the people who qualify, and Scott's administration has been failing miserably. It's the Legislature's turn to address the damage from 2011 and force a fix.