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Data in Florida’s unemployment agency is a mess, auditors find

The agency can’t produce data to verify claims have gone to the right people and in the right amounts. And it’s not the only agency with bad data, auditors say.
Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Surfside, Fla.
Envelopes from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Reemployment Assistance Program are shown, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Surfside, Fla. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Apr. 2
Updated Apr. 2

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s data on unemployment claims is such a mess that state auditors can’t rely on it to verify how much the state has paid out in jobless benefits during the pandemic, according to a report released Thursday.

In a sign of the depth of the problems at the Department of Economic Opportunity, the state’s embattled jobless aid agency, officials there couldn’t give auditors conducting a routine exam last year “complete and accurate data” on nearly $9 billion in state and federal unemployment claims.

Because the agency couldn’t produce the data, auditors couldn’t even try to verify that claims went out to eligible Floridians or in the right amounts.

Without clarity on such basic data, the agency “cannot demonstrate compliance with state law,” auditors wrote.

“The risk is increased that claimants and employers may be denied due process or determination decisions may be made based on incorrect data,” the auditors wrote.

The Department of Economic Opportunity blamed the bad data on the faulty unemployment online system known as CONNECT, which melted down amid a crush of unemployment claims last year. The department is asking for up to $244 million over five years to fix the 8-year-old system.

The department on Friday said it could not produce figures on how many suspected fraudulent claims it’s paid out or how many people have been overpaid.

“The Department continues to process overpayments and actively investigate fraudulent activity,” spokeswoman Emilie Oglesby said in a statement.

The Department of Economic Opportunity was not the only agency lashed by auditors for its finances during the pandemic.

When auditors looked into the books at the Department of Financial Services, which is responsible for the state’s accounting, they found officials in several instances hadn’t reconciled bank accounts or followed accepted accounting principles.

Some accounts were off by billions of dollars, amounting to “material misstatements” in accounting terms. The deferred compensation account for state employees was overstated by $1.1 billion. Numerous categories of the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which is used to assess the state’s financial position, were off by as much as $5 billion.

Florida’s Department of Financial Services is overseen by the elected Chief Financial Officer, Republican Jimmy Patronis.

The department told auditors the mistakes were because of pandemic-related pressures, including the transition to a remote work environment and reporting new expenditures from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Also, someone at the department “improperly submitted” the state’s financial reports to auditors without first going through the “normal chain of command,” Patronis spokesman Devin Galetta said in a statement.

“Normal department processes were violated,” Galetta said.

“Although the mistake was ultimately caught and corrected, the error is something the Department takes seriously,” Galetta added. “The Department is committed to identifying the individual, or individuals, responsible for this issue and holding them accountable.”

Although the sharp rise in pandemic-related claims devastated the state’s unemployment agency, some problems appear self-inflicted and date back years.

Auditors found that the department does not have adequate procedures to index and process paperwork for people’s claims. Paperwork that wasn’t properly indexed was purged after 30 days.

And CONNECT continues to be plagued with bugs that state auditors have been warning about for years. Many of those problems were never fixed by the administrations of former Gov. Rick Scott or Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Auditors wrote that one of those bugs, identified in 2015, flags another bug: overpayments. Yet rather than resolving the overpayment by recouping the money, the glitch erroneously increases the claimant’s balance to the size of the overpayment, allowing the claimant to collect the wrong amount — again. Although the department marked the bug as “severe” in 2018, it was still unresolved as of January this year, they wrote.

Other types of errors continue to plague the system, auditors noted. Some claimant screens and “notice of hearing” documents were not translated into Spanish or Creole as required under state law, making it difficult or impossible for applicants fluent only in those languages to fulfill their claims.

Lack of reliable data on unemployment claims could be contributing to the chaos and confusion millions of out-of-work Floridians have experienced during their interactions with the Department of Economic Opportunity over the last year.

Many Floridians who received benefits have been later told by the department to pay it back — erroneously, they say.

Don Reynolds, a physical therapist from Apollo Beach, said he was sent a notice from the department last year requesting he pay back about $2,500 in benefits he received while he was out of work. He could have appealed the notice, but he received it after the deadline had passed, according to records he supplied the Times/Herald.

He’s tried in vain to speak to someone at the department about it. Call center workers have told him that he correctly filed his employment paperwork, he said, but they say he needs to file an appeal — which CONNECT won’t let him do — since the deadline has passed.

He now worries that the department will seek criminal charges against him.

“If they keep pursuing it and try to say I defrauded them, I’m going to get a lawyer,” Reynolds said.