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Online and helpline glitches snag Florida's new jobless claims system

Published Oct. 30, 2013

With the rollout of Florida's new $63 million unemployment system entering its third week, it's still unclear how many claimants are having serious problems accessing their benefits.

Internet snags, clogged phone lines and packed unemployment offices seem par for the course for dozens of people who have contacted the Tampa Bay Times saying they are on track to miss a month or more of claims.

Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity oversees the unemployment system and says it has 562 employees working overtime to address complaints and questions. Still, more than 1.1 million people have been disconnected from the phone helpline. At times, only one of every 25 callers can reach a person.

Meanwhile, more than 5,600 people have contacted the department in writing and dozens more have flooded Gov. Rick Scott's email with complaints about the new system, known as CONNECT.

"There is absolutely no way to get through," said Julie Jared, 42, of Port Orange, who was laid off from a travel agency in September and is supposed to get $229 per week. "Even if you call every hour of every day, there's no way to get your issue addressed."

Jessica Sims, a spokeswoman for Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment system, said every claimant is important and the state is working with Deloitte — the contractor behind the project — to iron out the glitches. Thousands of claims are being processed per hour and benefits delayed or deleted due to technical errors will be backdated, she added.

The department touted the success of the revamp for a week before acknowledging that some claimants were erroneously blocked from entering the website or from claiming certain benefits.

"The Department of Economic Opportunity regrets any delays or frustration experienced by claimants," a media release said.

The situation highlights existing concerns from the U.S. Department of Labor about whether Florida is breaking federal law by allowing people to file claims only over the Internet.

It also raises questions about Deloitte, the New York-based company being paid $46 million for the state's revamp.

Deloitte led troubled overhauls of unemployment websites in California and Massachusetts and was fired in Miami-Dade County in 2009 partway through an $84 million contract to overhaul the district's computer system.

In June 2012, Florida looked like it was on a similar path, threatening to terminate its contract with Deloitte for a seeming inability to deliver on the system it promised.

Deloitte responded by switching its project manager and beefing up staff in Tallahassee.

The former system was so fragmented and at such a risk of failure, Sims said, the state didn't want to delay the new system by starting over.

Ultimately, Deloitte got $6.4 million more than originally negotiated for a project that took 10 months longer than estimated, contracts show.

Jessica Blume, a vice chairwoman for Deloitte, said in a prepared statement that the company has successfully completed thousands of projects around the country and prioritizes meeting the needs of people who rely on government for services.

"We care about our clients' success, and are committed to helping them improve the lives of the people they serve," she wrote.

Vanessa Giacoman of Panorama Government Solutions, which provides independent expert witnesses in public contract disputes, said roughly 80 percent of government projects result in delays or budget overruns, due to a system that rewards the lowest bidder and encourages companies to cut corners.

But Deloitte's recent streak of glitchy software rollouts is out of the ordinary, she added.

Deloitte has paid out more than $100,000 to Florida political groups since 2000 and employs six lobbyists in Tallahassee, including Brian Ballard, who also represents U.S. Sugar and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Florida. Deloitte has nine state contracts worth a combined $475 million.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or bdavis@tampabay.com.

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