Florida’s broken unemployment system to get new boss, DeSantis says

The department’s executive director, Ken Lawson, will stay in his job, but oversight of the unemployment system will be handled by Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published April 15, 2020|Updated April 16, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — A month into Florida’s historic unemployment crisis, Gov. Ron DeSantis is replacing the man in charge of the state’s broken unemployment system.

In a stunning admission, DeSantis said during a Wednesday news conference that he still doesn’t have basic information about how many unemployment applications have been processed or how many people have been paid — data that his counterparts in other states have been touting regularly.

“I think that we need to know exactly how many claims are paid, not only on a daily basis, but on an hourly basis,” DeSantis said. “That’s just a change that needs to be done.”

The unemployment system is handled by the Department of Economic Opportunity, which DeSantis oversees. The department’s current executive director, Ken Lawson, will stay in his job, but oversight of the unemployment system will be handled by Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.

“His mission is very simple: get assistance out as quickly as you can,” DeSantis said. “I hope that Jon can get in there, rattle the cage, and get it."

Jonathan Satter
Jonathan Satter [ State of Florida ]

Satter was appointed as secretary of the Department of Management Services by DeSantis last year. In that role, he oversees a team of more than 1,000 employees and an $800 million budget, serving as the support agency for state government, state universities, counties, local municipalities, and independent taxing districts throughout Florida.

He’ll now also be responsible for the state’s response to millions of unemployment claims that have been and are expected to be filed in the coming weeks because of the economic meltdown caused by COVID-19.

Last month, Lawson took responsibility for the failure of Florida’s unemployment processing website, CONNECT, which continues to shut down, preventing jobless Floridians from getting weekly payments of up to $275.

Related: 'I apologize' for Florida's unemployment website fiasco, director says

But DeSantis on Wednesday expressed frustration that problems persist with getting even the most basic information about the state’s unemployment system.

Asked about how many outstanding claims there were, DeSantis said he didn’t know, adding that’s been the problem. He said he’s been asking for the information “every morning” and not receiving it.

“Every morning I should know how many claims have been paid," DeSantis said. "Right now it’s hard for me to even get those numbers, and that’s unacceptable.”

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The lack of such a simple data point is an indication that Florida is struggling mightily to process a stunning surge in coronavirus-related unemployment claims that started a month ago.

Related: Florida unemployment claims explode amid coronavirus layoff

Like many states, Florida’s system couldn’t keep up with the number of people trying to file for unemployment, causing the state to resort to paper applications. One potential culprit: the system’s backup wasn’t connected, something that wasn’t discovered until weeks into the fiasco.

But filing for unemployment largely seems to be fixed. The next critical step is processing those claims, which is required to determine whether people are eligible for unemployment.

Many states have been able to say how many claims they have processed and how many people have been paid. Neighboring Georgia has processed 644,000 claims, according to Reuters. California says it’s processed more than 2 million so far.

Even New Jersey, whose unemployment system is operating on a computer language so old that their governor has begged anyone for help, claims to know how many applications have been processed: 166,000, or 60 percent.

Last week, Lawson said the state had a backlog of more than 560,000 claims, and the department was hoping to process 80,000 of them — an indication that Floridians could be waiting many more weeks for unemployment checks. The department has not answered multiple requests from the Times/Herald about whether the state met that goal last week.

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

The backlog now is likely well over 1 million claims. DeSantis said Wednesday that more than 500,000 claims have been filed through a new online portal launched late last week. Tens of thousands more applications have been sent through the mail through a free partnership with FedEx, he said.

Prior to his appointment as secretary, Satter spent 28 years in the banking, commercial real estate and logistics industries, his website bio states. Satter received a bachelor of arts degree from Rollins College and a Master of Business Administration degree from Nova University.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

HAVE YOU LOST SOMEONE YOU LOVE TO COVID-19?: Help us remember them

UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits

CONTRIBUTE TO THE SCRAPBOOK: Help us tell the story of life under coronavirus

BRIGHT SPOTS IN DARK TIMES: The world is hard right now, but there’s still good news out there

LISTEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS PODCAST: New episodes every week, including interviews with experts and reporters

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information, six days a week

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.