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With feds and civil rights groups watching, Florida's jobless benefits site debuts

Published Oct. 16, 2013

It's been a week since unemployed Floridians could use the state's online system to process claims, making it even harder to receive jobless benefits in a system ranked lowest in granting aid.

Last week, state officials took down the state's online system so it could launch a new $63 million unemployment claims site, which is called "Connect".

Although the call center was to debut Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., a spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity, Jessica Sims, said the Connect site didn't come up until shortly before 9 a.m. (UPDATE: In a subsequent e-mail to The Buzz, Sims said the system was switched on at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday. She said only the call center was scheduled to open at 7:30 a.m., and not the online site. She didn't provide a time in which the site was supposed to begin).

"More than 200 initial claims were filed successfully and about 2,600 continued claims were filed successfully," Sims said.

Any delay is noteworthy because, as the AP reported last week, though state officials say the new site is an improvement, they still warn of longer wait times and busier phone lines as Floridians adjust to the new system. It's also noteworthy because the feds have been critical of the way Florida provides jobs benefits.

Only about 17 percent of Floridians eligible for unemployment benefits actually received them, a level that many blame on a 2011 bill approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Rick Scott that forced all applicants for unemployment benefits to go online. Before the bill was signed into law, people could turn in applications on paper or over the telephone. The law also required applicants to take a 45-question assessment to measure their skills.

The U.S. Department of Labor initially approved the changes, which eventually led to a sharp increase in the number of rejected applications. Civil rights groups filed challenges with the federal government over the changes. In April, the DOL's Civil Rights Center sided with the pro-worker groups.

Federal officials found that Florida violated the civil rights of unemployed individuals, beginning in 2011, when it required them to apply online for benefits and take an "assessment" before receiving any unemployment check. It found that DEO's unemployment program discriminated against people who speak Spanish and Creole, as well as those who were blind or otherwise disabled. With millions in federal aid at stake, the DEO agreed to enter negotiations and make appropriate changes.

The DEO pushed back, however, charging that the DOL findings were "flawed" and based on politics rather than facts. DEO general counsel Robert Sechen accused the DOL of collaborating with the Miami Workers Center.

It's also worth noting that the vendor of Connect, Deloitte Consulting, has had issues in other states.

The Deloitte jobless claims system put online in Massachusetts was two years late, $6 million over budget, and plagued with problems that left hundreds of jobless workers struggling to get benefits.