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Florida next to last in paying unemployment benefits during the pandemic

Florida officials can’t solely blame Deloitte, the company that built the state’s online unemployment claims system.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida unemployed workers are still trying to apply for and receive unemployment benefits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida unemployed workers are still trying to apply for and receive unemployment benefits since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Dec. 3, 2020
Updated Dec. 3, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — In a finding unlikely to surprise the millions of Floridians who filed unemployment claims this year, Florida was the second-worst state in the nation at paying benefits on time, federal data shows.

Just 36 percent of Floridians who filed for benefits received their first payment within three weeks this year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s a rate so pitiful that only Hawaii did worse.

Like many other states, the coronavirus pandemic crippled Florida’s unemployment system, causing the state’s website, CONNECT, to melt down from the historic rise in jobless claims. During April, May and June, at the start of the pandemic, the state started paying just 28 percent of claims on time.

The rate improved in the months after that period, but not enough to drag Florida off the floor of the Department of Labor’s national rankings so far.

The Department of Labor considers 87 percent of first payments within two to three weeks “acceptable.” Seven states were able to hit that mark this year. The national average was 66.8 percent.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity, which runs Florida’s unemployment system, said the federal rankings do not include its performance paying out $600-per-week federal benefits. The rankings are for how well each state paid out their own benefits, which in Florida tops out at $275 per week.

Related: Florida’s unemployed still haven’t been paid. And they don’t think it’s their fault.

“The Department made a concentrated effort to pay (federal pandemic) payments as quickly as possible, outside of the CONNECT system,” spokesman Tiffany Vause said in a statement. “We felt as though ensuring Floridians had this payment as quickly as possible was the priority.”

She did not say how quickly the department paid out federal benefits.

Florida’s unemployment program has been near the bottom of the pack for making timely payments for years, federal data shows. The state typically ranks near the bottom of the list each year, and it hasn’t met the Department of Labor’s “acceptable” level for at least the last decade.

The crush of unemployment claims stressed nearly every state’s unemployment system, but Florida’s performance was particularly poor. A month into the unemployment crisis, the state still didn’t know how many Floridians had filed claims, or how many people had been paid, prompting Gov. Ron DeSantis to replace the man in charge of the system.

DeSantis placed most of the blame on Deloitte Consulting, the company that built CONNECT in 2013. He blasted Deloitte in news conferences and ordered an investigation into the company’s contract with the state, which was signed in the early months of former Gov. Rick Scott’s term.

But two other states that rolled out Deloitte-created unemployment systems around 2013 performed far better than Florida did, the federal data shows.

Both New Mexico and Massachusetts were able to get initial unemployment payments out within three weeks about 68 percent of the time, above the national average.

But both states improved their systems in ways that Florida officials didn’t. Massachusetts moved its system to the cloud in 2017, allowing it to easily scale up to handle more claims.

New Mexico kept its system on its own servers, like Florida, but they kept Deloitte on contract to make improvements to the system.

“We have continued to reinvest in our system infrastructure, and as a result we were able to scale our system this year to address an exponential increase in claims caused by the pandemic,” New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions spokeswoman Stacy Johnston said in a statement Thursday.

Deloitte hasn’t had any involvement with Florida’s unemployment system since their initial contract ended in 2015. Since then, the state has failed to make changes to CONNECT despite repeated warnings from state auditors that fixes were needed.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is going to ask lawmakers next year for potentially tens of millions of dollars to either shift CONNECT into the cloud or replace the system.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who on Thursday was named to a newly-created Senate committee to address pandemic issues including unemployment, said DeSantis inherited a broken system.

“Nobody thinks the unemployment system worked well,” Brandes said. “You had essentially total system failure for weeks on end, and a lack of leadership that required the governor to replace the executive in charge of the agency.”

But he partly defended Florida’s poor performance when compared to New Mexico and Massachusetts, noting that Florida’s size and tourism-driven economy made the crisis worse. More than 2.1 million Floridians have filed unemployment claims since mid-March, when the pandemic hit, compared to more than 1.6 million in Massachusetts.