Florida is spending up to $110 million to back up its failed unemployment website

And that’s just for call-takers. State records also reveal that just 1 percent of 864,313 calls to the unemployment hotline were answered in one week.
Hialeah city employee Tatiana Fernandez, right, distributes printed unemployment forms to Miami-Dade County residents outside of the John F. Kennedy Library on Tuesday in Hialeah.
Hialeah city employee Tatiana Fernandez, right, distributes printed unemployment forms to Miami-Dade County residents outside of the John F. Kennedy Library on Tuesday in Hialeah. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS ]
Published April 9, 2020|Updated April 10, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s last-minute scramble to beef up its broken unemployment system comes with an astonishingly high price tag: nearly $110 million so far.

In the last few weeks, state officials have signed contracts with three companies just to handle the flood of calls to the system.

One contract, worth up to $79 million, is with TelaForce, LLC in Fort Walton Beach to provide at least 1,000 call takers and 33 supervisors, who must all pass background checks. Another, worth up to $17 million, is with Virginia’s Faneuil, Inc. to provide 250 call takers. And a third contract worth up to $13 million was signed Thursday with United Data Technologies in Miramar for another 250 people.

Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Tiffany Vause said late Thursday that the contracts allow the state to quickly increase and decrease the number of call takers. The contracts are only for a year, and officials don’t believe they’ll need to max out each contract

The extraordinary sum would be $32 million more than officials spent to overhaul the state’s unemployment website seven years ago — and an indicator of how desperate they are to tackle the crippling backlog of unemployment claims.

Related: Floridians: Use this website to file unemployment claims

Gov. Ron DeSantis has vowed “all hands on deck” and told the Department of Economic Opportunity to do whatever it takes to resolve the emergency.

Since mid-March, the state’s unemployment website — the primary way to file a claim — has been broken by the workload. The state’s call center is supposed to be the backup to the website, but it has fared no better.

In recent weeks, the center has answered just 2 percent of the calls it’s received, according to the contracts.

In the last week of March, the rate was even worse. Of the 864,313 calls to the department’s hotline that week, just 8,395 were answered — less than 1 percent.

Nearly 90 percent of callers were not able to connect at all, the contracts state. Those who were able to connect spent, on average, more than 6½ hours on hold.

TelaForce’s contract states the company will handle a variety of calls, including resetting personal identification numbers, which the department says make up a third of all calls. Floridians who have applied for unemployment in the past, but can’t remember their PINs to log into the site, have had to call to have it reset. Without that reset, they can’t log in to apply.

Related: Floridians could wait weeks for unemployment checks, officials say

The department did not answer questions about the contracts, including whether they were being paid for with federal or state dollars.

While states around the country have struggled under the crush of unemployment claims, Florida’s situation is on the verge of an economic disaster.

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Officials are desperate to get checks into the hands of Floridians, but it appears many will have to wait weeks. On Monday, Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson said they were aiming to process 80,000 of the more than 560,000 outstanding applications this week.

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

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