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Florida workforce program is about to get major changes. Here’s what they’d do.

Lawmakers hope to increase transparency and efficiency in the workforce system system following a 2018 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls
House Speaker Chris Sprowls [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 26, 2021|Updated Apr. 26, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls was so excited, he brought visual aids.

When lawmakers arrived on the House floor on April 14, they were greeted by large posters celebrating bills that would overhaul the state’s beleaguered workforce system, which aims to train and find employment for the jobless. The bills were compared to a home: the “plumbing” was a Floridian’s pipeline to a job. The “attic” had a light bulb meant to signify shining “a light on ineffective bureaucracy.” And so on.

“Each and every one of you was the architect behind these two bills that were just passed that will have a significant impact on the lives of Floridians,” Sprowls said.

A "blueprint" describing the ideas behind the workforce system overhaul passed out of the Florida House on April 14, 2021. Lawmakers hope to increase transparency and efficiency in the workforce system system following a 2018 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times into two local workforce boards.
A "blueprint" describing the ideas behind the workforce system overhaul passed out of the Florida House on April 14, 2021. Lawmakers hope to increase transparency and efficiency in the workforce system system following a 2018 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times into two local workforce boards. [ KIRBY WILSON | Tampa Bay Times ]

Those bills, House Bill 1507 and House Bill 1505, which passed unanimously earlier this month, amount to a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s workforce system. The Senate also passed the House legislation unanimously on Monday, meaning the reforms will head to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

Lawmakers hope to increase transparency and efficiency in the workforce system system following a 2018 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times into two local workforce boards: CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay.

That investigation found, in part, that under the boards’ then-CEO Edward Peachey, employees benefited from phantom job connections. The agencies paid out a combined $3.1 million from 2014 through 2017 in bonuses to employees who supposedly helped Floridians find employment. Thousands of those listed as being helped by CareerSource never sought help from the agency.

The House and Senate bills hope to prevent scandals like the one that plagued the Tampa Bay-area boards. But they also go much further to overhaul the workforce system, which routes hundreds of millions of federal dollars to job programs every year. Lawmakers want to give the state’s system more flexibility to respond to the labor needs of an ever-changing state.

The Republican-led efforts have been spectacularly popular with the Legislature this year. Not a single lawmaker in the House or Senate voted against any of the bills.

If the legislation becomes law, here are some of the biggest changes:

  • The bills give DeSantis the power to potentially abolish all local workforce development boards — CareerSource Pinellas, for example — if he chooses. Those boards’ responsibilities would be brought under the auspices of the state CareerSource board. DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
  • The legislation creates the Reimagining Education and Career Help (REACH) office under the governor, which would help manage the workforce system along with other agencies: the Department of Economic Opportunity, CareerSource Florida and the Department of Education.
  • The state would begin to build a centralized platform through which the state could track a job-seeker’s progress. In theory, the new system would work in tandem with the state’s online re-employment site, CONNECT. The House wants to spend at least $100 million in federal coronavirus relief money on the new platform.
  • The state would take a number of steps to get better data about Florida’s labor needs. For example, the state’s Workforce Estimating Conference, which has not met since 2013, would be reconstituted as the Florida Labor Market Estimating Conference — which would meet twice per year.
  • Florida will try to reorient its education system toward courses that will lead to high-paying jobs that are in high demand. For example, state colleges and school districts will start to offer a “money-back guarantee” on tuition if a student does not find work in the area for which they’ve been trained after six months. This program would start during the 2022-2023 school year.
  • Local workforce development boards would be subject to new rules. For instance, local CareerSource board members would have term limits, and the boards would be required to post certain information online. Each local board will also be assigned a public letter grade based on its ability help people “achieve self-sufficiency.”

The workforce overhaul has proven a higher priority to some Florida lawmakers than improving the state’s rickety unemployment system. When asked at an April 22 news conference whether Florida should raise its weekly unemployment benefits from $275 per week to $375 per week — as the Senate is proposing — Sprowls said the House is focused on “getting people back to work.”

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Related: ‘What’s right and decent’: Florida Senate approves higher unemployment benefits

Some of the changes lawmakers are proposing hinge on approval by President Joe Biden’s administration. For example, in order for DeSantis to gain more control over the local workforce boards, the U.S. Department of Labor would have to sign off on a new state waiver under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

It’s unclear if the department will do so; the Biden administration will have 90 days to respond to any waiver request.

Sprowls said in April that Florida is asking for this waiver because federal workforce money currently comes with too many “strings” attached.

“Our ask of them is, ‘look, we believe that we can deliver a workforce system with better outcomes and better accountability and get people jobs in Florida without your strings,’” Sprowls said. “‘And we’re willing to put our name on the line to do so. If we can do it, awesome. You should continue to give us this federal money. And if we can’t? Well, you could always take the federal money back.’”

The federal waiver approval is not the only area of uncertainty that comes with the legislation. Some of the proposed changes are so sweeping, even officials at local workforce development boards don’t know what the system will end up looking like.

However, the CEOs of CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay — Jennifer Brackney and John Flanagan — say they want to shore up trust in the workforce system. To them, the state’s efforts align with what they’ve tried to do in the years since the Peachey fiasco.

Flanagan noted that his board helped place some 5,600 people into new jobs last fiscal year. Brackney’s CareerSource Pinellas reportedly helped more than 1,300 businesses with their labor needs.

“I don’t think anything changes from where we’ve been for the last three years,” Brackney said. “We applaud the efforts to promote transparency and accountability.”

Lawmakers also acknowledge the uncertainty that comes with large changes to a complex government system.

The bills’ sponsors said they’re willing to re-examine the changes they’ve made in future years as necessary.

“If you’re asking me specifically, ‘Would I be looking at continuing to reform the process to make sure we’re getting a better result for the user?” said Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, the Senate sponsor. “Every day, every year.”

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