Can Florida’s broken workforce aid program be fixed? Lawmakers aren’t sure.

Republicans say the CareerSource system needs reform, but it’s unclear what that might look like.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairs the House Education and Employment committee.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairs the House Education and Employment committee. [ News Service of Florida ]
Published Feb. 18, 2021|Updated Feb. 18, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — In a dimly lit basement committee room at the Florida Capitol this week, lawmakers had one big question for the officials in charge of Florida’s workforce development program.

Who exactly benefits from the web of bureaucracy Florida has set up to route hundreds of millions of federal dollars to people looking for new or better jobs?

After three presentations by some of the people in charge of the program — and close to an hour of grilling by lawmakers — skeptics on the House Education and Employment committee never got the answer they were looking for.

“It’s very concerning to me when y’all are getting paid to get people jobs, and you can’t tell us who you got jobs for,” said Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, the committee’s chair. “There’s no transparency, there’s no accountability, at least from my perspective.”

The mood in the room was particularly tense given the scandal exposed in 2018 by the Tampa Bay Times on what was then considered two of the state’s highest performing local workforce development agencies: CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay.

The Times investigation found, in part, that policies put into place by then-CEO Edward Peachey allowed CareerSource employees to benefit from phantom job connections. Those two regional agencies paid out a combined $3.1 million from 2014 through 2017 in bonuses to employees who helped Floridians find employment. Thousands of those listed as being helped by CareerSource never sought assistance from the agency.

A report from the U.S. Department of Labor later confirmed that and other of the Times’ findings, finally alleging that the agencies misspent as much as $17 million in taxpayer money. At one point, the FBI opened an investigation into the agencies. A spokeswoman for the FBI would not confirm or deny the current existence of that investigation, citing bureau policy.

Federal job training programs are not new

CareerSource Florida and its 24 local offshoots are an integral part of Florida’s workforce development system, which routes federal money to local agencies responsible for getting people new or better jobs.

That network is part of an American system that has existed in one form or another for nearly 45 years. Before 1978, federal job training initiatives were geared toward government jobs. But under President Jimmy Carter, the federal government began spending money on getting people trained for jobs in the private sector.

Over the decades, politicians have agreed the federal government should have a hand in getting people jobs that fit the modern economy — but not always on the training programs to do it. The system has been reformed numerous times, most recently in 2014 with the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

Today, in the wake of a devastating pandemic that has fundamentally changed the national economy, advocates say job training is needed more than ever.

“The biggest industry that’s been affected has been hospitality and tourism. A lot of those jobs have left and are going to be slow to come back,” CareerSource Tampa Bay CEO John Flanagan said. “How do we help the population that’s been negatively affected by COVID and provide the tools for them to enter into a new career?”

According to its 2019-2020 annual report, CareerSource Florida directed $249.4 million of mostly federal money to Florida families and job training programs that benefit them. More than 130,000 Floridians who were helped by the organization’s statewide network found a job, the agency reported.

But lawmakers struggled Tuesday to get those numbers, which are readily available online, from the Department of Economic Opportunity representatives speaking to House committee members. They’ve also struggled to get more specific information from the department, which oversees local CareerSource boards. Latvala said in an interview after the meeting that since October he hasn’t been able to get a demographic breakdown of those helped by the agency.

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, offered the bluntest feedback to the three presenters — the Department of Economic Opportunity’s Casey Penn, CareerSource Florida President Michelle Dennard and CareerSource Northeast Florida CEO Bruce Ferguson.

“The presentation to me was not particularly illustrative on a storytelling level of, ‘Here’s what we cost, and here’s what we get,’” Fine told Penn. At another point, Fine offered this assessment: “I feel like I’m sitting through buzzword Bingo.”

After the meeting, Penn said he did not have time for an interview. A Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans: CareerSource needs reform

But during his presentation, Penn hinted at how the lack of state oversight led to malfeasance at the CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay boards. Before 2019, the state did two different periodic reviews of local boards. One made sure the boards were in good financial shape. The other ensured they were following local and federal state laws and policies. But before 2019, those reviews were done separately, Penn said. That might have made it difficult for regulators to see broader patterns of misconduct.

“We’ve learned a lot over the last two years. We’ve made a lot of changes over the last two years,” Penn said.

After the meeting, Latvala said the state’s workforce development needs more reform. He did not specify what that might look like.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, told lawmakers in a November speech he wants them to closely scrutinize the state’s myriad regulatory agencies during the upcoming Legislative session.

“If Washington, D.C. has a deep state, in Florida, we have a subterranean state. It’s time we brought these entities to the surface,” Sprowls said then. “Those that are doing little than adding to administrative costs to already underperforming programs, they need to be dissolved and their functions reassigned to an accountable entity.”

Last week, the Florida House put out a news release highlighting a recent audit of the state’s workforce development program by the Department of Labor. Federal officials found problems with the way the state CareerSource board — and CareerSource South Florida — conducts business.

Even so, the House release said the report outlined “failures of the workforce programs,” and the Sprowls called on Latvala’s committee to “propose solutions.”

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s beleaguered local CareerSource agencies are trying to get back into the public’s good graces. In September, CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay, submitted a corrective action plan to address the Department of Labor’s report of agency misconduct. Under Peachey, CareerSource Pinellas, which had a budget of about $10 million in 2019-2020, repeatedly failed to post its board meeting agendas online for the public to see. They’ve fixed that, said Jennifer Brackney, who’s now the CEO of CareerSource Pinellas.

Brackney and CareerSource Tampa Bay CEO John Flanagan were both watching Tuesday’s meeting remotely. In interviews Wednesday, they were armed with some of the answers their colleagues lacked.

CareerSource Pinellas, for example, has helped train 6,007 people in the past three years, Brackney said. CareerSource Tampa Bay has placed more than 8,000 people into jobs in the past two years, Flanagan said.

“When you’re talking about people that are elected to hold office, they want to hear your results, and it’s important that you tell them your results,” Flanagan said.