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Lawmakers disagree on $36 million for Florida’s unemployment agency

The department is facing a monumental task: reviewing — by hand — most of the 5.6 million claims that have been filed during the 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. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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. (AP Photo/John Raoux) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Apr. 20
Updated Apr. 20

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are on track to assign an additional $36 million to Florida’s unemployment agency.

But they can’t agree on how to spend it: either on resolving millions of existing unemployment claims or upgrading the broken unemployment system that caused so many problems with those claims in the first place.

In the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, the debate has become a top sticking point for state lawmakers crafting the next year’s budget.

Legislators have already agreed to spend $56 million to help the Department of Economic Opportunity handle the deluge of claims and adjudication issues that continue to pile up from Floridians who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, wants to spend $36 million more, considering the monumental task the agency faces in the wake of the crush of jobless claims filed during the pandemic.

The department doesn’t just have scores of claims adjudication issues currently waiting to be reviewed by an adjudicator, some of which are holding up people’s payments. (The department did not say how many.)

The department must also review most of the 5.6 million claims filed in the last 13 months to ensure the claims complied with state and federal laws, according to the department.

That is a painstaking task that cannot be automated. Some of those claims are simple. But many are complicated, requiring, at a minimum, someone to assess the claimant’s earnings to ensure they were eligible to be paid, and paid in the proper amounts, across at least five state and federal unemployment programs.

That data is sometimes a mess, as state auditors found when they tried to do their own assessment of claims. Auditors found that the department did not have adequate procedures to index and process paperwork for people’s claims, and that paperwork that wasn’t properly indexed was purged after 30 days.

The $36 million would go to hiring temporary full- and part-time employees to review the millions of applications and backlog of adjudication issues, according to the department.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said resolving the backlog is a “top priority” for Simpson.

“We have many senators who are very concerned about the backlog,” Betta said in an email.

The House agreed with the Senate to spend an additional $36 million on the department. They want to spend most of it upgrading the troubled unemployment system, known as CONNECT. Although the state spent $80 million to implement CONNECT in 2013, it has systemic problems that were never fixed. When Floridians lost their jobs during the pandemic, it failed immediately, leaving Floridians waiting months to receive their benefits.

“They want it in one spot, we want it in another,” said Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, of the impasse.

The Senate is proposing $2 million for a third-party assessment before immediately jumping into a new upgrade, which could cost up to $244 million.

“Despite everyone’s best intentions, he doesn’t want to inadvertently end up with another CONNECT situation,” Betta said.

Both chambers must come to an agreement in the next week if they want this year’s legislative session to end on the April 30 deadline.

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