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As problems persist with Florida's unemployment website, Crist calls for investigation

Published Dec. 13, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — It's been a month since Douglas Stribling was laid off from his welding job, but he has yet to receive a dime in unemployment benefits.

With a wife recently diagnosed with cancer, Stribling said he feels helpless.

"It's really hard right now," said Stribling, 63, of St. Petersburg. "I can't get anyone on the phone. The system is all screwed up."

Laments like Stribling's have been common throughout Florida ever since the Oct. 15 launch of the state's new $63 million unemployment website, CONNECT, which processes claims for 230,000 recipients. Because of a 2011 law passed by the Legislature, recipients must register online, a requirement that federal officials this year found violated the civil rights of the unemployed. State officials say the federal investigation was politically driven and are objecting to that finding.

When the CONNECT launch was addled with technical glitches, receiving benefits on time became impossible for many. Thousands of complaints flooded the offices of Gov. Rick Scott, state lawmakers and officials in the Department of Economic Opportunity overseeing the website.

On Thursday, Scott's 2014 challenger for governor, Charlie Crist, joined U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, in calling for an investigation.

"The way CONNECT has been handled is pretty cold and callous," Crist said. "These are people who are looking for work, and this is when they need their government the most. That they can't get any answers is unconscionable."

When asked for reaction to Crist's comment, the governor's office referred reporters to a Wednesday statement by the DEO that disclosed that the contractor, Deloitte Consulting, paid back $1.5 million in financial restitution to the state.

"I will not rest until our contractor, Deloitte Consulting, has delivered the system Floridians were promised," DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio said in a statement.

Still, problems persist. Over the weekend, technicians were called in to fix 16 issues. On Tuesday night, technicians fixed 22 more.

What exactly are the issues? Why did Deloitte pay $1.5 million to the state? DEO spokeswoman Monica Russell said she would get answers — later.

Since mid October, the Times/Herald has asked repeatedly for the number of claimants who have been unable to receive benefits because of problems with CONNECT.

On Thursday, Russell said there's no way to differentiate those from people who are ineligible.

For claimants like Eriel Roberts, 23, of Tallahassee, who has been denied benefits since September, the lack of answers is pushing her to the breaking point.

"I'm about to be put of out my house," Roberts said, holding back tears. "And I can't get anyone to help me."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263