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Senator asks director to resign over Florida’s unemployment fiasco

And another Tampa lawmaker wants an audit of the department.
Florida Senator Janet Cruz on the floor of the Florida Senate, Thursday, May 2, 2019.
Florida Senator Janet Cruz on the floor of the Florida Senate, Thursday, May 2, 2019. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2019) ]
Published Apr. 3, 2020
Updated Apr. 3, 2020

The man overseeing Florida’s broken unemployment system is under mounting pressure from two Tampa lawmakers from both parties.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, is calling on Department of Economic Opportunity Director Ken Lawson to resign for not communicating with lawmakers about the state’s unemployment website fiasco.

And Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, is calling for an audit of Lawson’s department following reporting in the Times/Herald that showed the agency ignored years of audits about problems with the state’s unemployment website.

Cruz’s request was sent Friday to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed Lawson to the job last year. Cruz said Lawson and his staff backed out of a Thursday meeting with her and small business owners and has not presented any timeline for when the state’s unemployment system will be fixed.

“I cannot in good conscience stand by the response provided by the (Department of Economic Opportunity) to this economic crisis,” Cruz wrote DeSantis. “It is with great disappointment and frustration that I request you ask Executive Director Ken Lawson to resign from his duties."

Florida’s unemployment system has been overwhelmed by a record number of people thrown out of work because of the coronavirus. Its website, the primary way to apply for unemployment, brings up error messages more often than not. Its call center, meant to be a backup system for the website, has been overwhelmed with callers, and some people are spending up to 12 hours on hold, if they’re able to get through at all.

The problems could turn into an economic disaster for Florida, whose tourism-dependent economy has been crushed by the coronavirus. You need to apply for unemployment in order to receive it, and some people have been trying to apply — and failing — for weeks.

Florida could lose out on billions of federal unemployment dollars that were part of the economic stimulus package because of an inability of would-be recipients to apply.

On Thursday, Lawson apologized for the problems and said the office is doing everything it can to fix it. The office said they would be issuing paper applications on Friday that people can fill out and send the department. As of Friday afternoon, those forms have not yet been issued, and a spokeswoman did not respond when asked when they would be available.

Ken Lawson, then the head of Visit Florida and now director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, sits with Gov. Rick Scott, left and Nancy Detert as they participated in a Fighting for Florida Jobs Roundtable in Manatee County on March 16, 2017. Lawson is now in charge of the unemployment system that was put in place during Scott's time as governor.
Ken Lawson, then the head of Visit Florida and now director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, sits with Gov. Rick Scott, left and Nancy Detert as they participated in a Fighting for Florida Jobs Roundtable in Manatee County on March 16, 2017. Lawson is now in charge of the unemployment system that was put in place during Scott's time as governor. [ Tiffany Tompkins | Bradenton Herald ]

The state has also hired a company to provide 250 call takers and is asking state employees from other agencies to field unemployment calls.

The website’s problems date back to the early days of former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. Under Scott, the state spent $77 million launching a deeply-flawed unemployment website that has continued to struggle.

In 2015, 2016 and 2019, state auditors found the system was still suffering from error messages and other glitches. Scott never fixed the problems.

Toledo said she wanted another audit of the agency to find out why the department spent so much money on a system that is now reverting back to paper applications.

“I am calling on ... an audit into how the (Department of Economic Opportunity) spent such a large sum of money to run a website that has seen the same unfixed problems in the past 5 years," Toledo said in a statement. "If these problems were not solved, we must determine where the appropriation went, and why the (Department of Economic Opportunity) did not seek to prepare for the economic impact of COVID-19.”

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