Two top-ranking Democrats in the U.S. Senate are asking the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate Florida’s failure to process and pay out unemployment claims.
In a letter to the department’s inspector general sent Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote that Florida’s failures stand out even among other states that have struggled to pay their out-of-work residents.
“While all states have seen record increases in the number of its residents applying for unemployment," their letter states, “the state of Florida’s performance has proved uniquely poor in its abject inability to assist millions of Florida residents who have applied for and continue to await unemployment benefits.”
The senators are asking U.S. Labor Department Inspector General Scott Dahl to investigate Florida’s problems and look at whether state officials have been properly distributing federal aid for the coronavirus crisis. The CARES Act allotted billions for states to distribute to unemployed Americans. It also included $25 million for Dahl’s office to audit and investigate how states have handled that money.
During a news conference in Miami on Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis dismissed the senators’ request as “partisan politics."
“I’ve never heard of partisan politics in Washington, D.C., before," said DeSantis, a former congressman. “Oh my goodness, can you imagine that?”
“These guys are very partisan,” he added. "That’s all they’re doing.”
Florida has struggled to process the nearly 2.4 million claims it’s received. During the first month of the crisis, Florida was the slowest state in the nation to process claims and was the only state in the nation to see its trust fund increase.
More than 1.2 million people have started to receive payments and $4.6 billion has been paid out, but systemic problems still exist. Many Floridians have been paid just a fraction of what they’re owed. Others are locked out of their accounts or have applications still marked “pending.” The state’s website crashes regularly, and state officials started rationing the number of people who can use it last week.
By comparison, New York, which has 2 million fewer residents than Florida, had paid out more than $10 billion in benefits by May 20.
Schumer and Wyden note that even DeSantis has criticized Florida’s unemployment website, known as CONNECT. DeSantis has called the website a “jalopy” that was was designed to fail, and last month he ordered his inspector general to look into the history of CONNECT and why the company that designed it, Deloitte Consulting, won the contract.
DeSantis said Monday that the investigation would “take some time” to finish.
The senators are asking federal investigators to take a deeper dive into Florida’s system, including why problems that were flagged repeatedly in three state audits, including one after DeSantis took office, were never fixed. A Politico story last week also noted that DeSantis’ transition team warned him the system could fail.
“Despite the system’s well documented problems, inaction from both current and past gubernatorial administrations in Florida left (the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity) completely unprepared to respond to record increases in unemployment claims caused by a pandemic," the letter states. “Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently stated that the program was ‘designed with all these different things, basically to fail’ and acknowledged that more changes are needed.
“Drastic improvements are needed, and it is unclear what steps are being taken immediately to mitigate the possibility of future failures in (Florida’s) unemployment processing system.”
The inspector general does not have to honor the senators’ request.
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