‘I apologize’ for Florida’s unemployment website fiasco, director says

The office is going to revert to paper applications because the website is so broken, Executive Director Ken Lawson said.
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson apologized for the problems with the state's unemployment website on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson apologized for the problems with the state's unemployment website on Thursday, April 2, 2020. [ LAWRENCE MOWER | Zoom ]
Published April 2, 2020|Updated April 2, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — The man in charge of Florida’s broken unemployment website apologized Thursday for the fiasco and said the department is reverting to paper applications for people seeking relief.

“From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson said during a morning meeting on the teleconference app Zoom. “There’s a full commitment from me, personally and professionally, to get you the resources you need from my department.”

The department’s unemployment website is essentially broken, dogged by longstanding glitches and a crush of people thrown out of work because of the coronavirus.

Lawson said the office received 1.5 million calls in the last week, with a third of them coming from Floridians looking to reset their PIN numbers. The PINs are required to log in to the site.

Related: Florida’s unemployment benefits: We answer your questions

“That’s one of the biggest problems I’m addressing immediately,” Lawson said.

On Sunday, the department signed a contract with a company to provide 250 additional call takers just to handle PIN resets, Lawson said.

To relieve stress from the state’s website, the department will also be issuing paper applications that people can mail to the office. Those applications are not yet available.

The department is hiring another company this week to scan the applications and enter them into the system, he said.

“’I’ve got to be as creative as possible considering where we are,” Lawson said.

Related: Ron DeSantis was warned about Florida’s broken unemployment website last year, audit shows

The Zoom meeting was attended by two Florida lawmakers. After viewers started cursing and playing music, the meeting was switched off and restarted.

“I apologize for the original call going a little haywire,” Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami said after.

Lawson blamed a historic rise in unemployment claims on the website’s woes. Last week, a record 227,000 Floridians applied for unemployment, a figure that is likely a vast undercount considering how few people have been able to apply through he website.

“Every state is having this problem,” Lawson said.

He did not address, and was not asked, about why neither former Gov. Rick Scott or current Gov. Ron DeSantis fixed longstanding website glitches and problems flagged by auditors in three separate reports as far back as 2015. The most recent audit was in 2019, just a few months after DeSantis took office.

Related: Coronavirus unemployment crisis deepens in Florida and U.S.

Lawson was named to the job by DeSantis in December 2018.

In yet another indication of how bad the website is, the department is asking unemployed workers to use Microsoft’s outdated Internet Explorer to apply. That web browser isn’t supported by modern Apple computers, and even Microsoft has begged people not to use it. Microsoft has replaced Internet Explorer with a new browser called Edge.

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Lawson said the department is working on creating a version of the website, but he asked people to be patient over the next few weeks.

“My people accept the success, and I’ll accept the blame,” Lawson said. “I own this.”

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