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  1. Florida Politics

As anniversary of Florida unemployment site approaches, benefits still lag

TALLAHASSEE — Despite promises from Gov. Rick Scott's administration that the state's new online unemployment system is fixed, unpaid claims keep mounting and Florida now ranks last in the nation at providing timely relief for jobless workers.

The lag is squeezing financially strapped workers like Gregory Benn, who lost his Sears maintenance job in late August. The 61-year-old Jacksonville resident and his wife say the online system is to blame for not paying him the unemployment compensation he is due.

"They keep telling us that it's a system issue," his wife, Ann Benn, said Monday. "I can't buy food with them telling us it's a 'system issue.' We've tried for a month to get paid. I'm begging, borrowing and about to go crazy."

Complaints like that are nothing new for CONNECT, the state's online filing system for unemployment benefits that 1.1 million workers rely on every year. Upon its launch — one year ago — it wrongly withheld payments from thousands of job seekers because of more than 100 technical defects. But after a series of emergency measures, a Scott appointee in March vowed that problems had been fixed.

"The bottom line is that we have resolved the delays caused by CONNECT's launch," Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, told state senators in late March. "Service is now better than it was prior to CONNECT."

Federal labor statistics say otherwise.

In the year before CONNECT launched, Florida paid 78 percent of initial claims of up to $275 within two to three weeks, a federal benchmark that measures timeliness, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The claims Florida paid on time dropped to 48 percent, however, in the year since CONNECT launched, making it last in the nation.

And it could be getting worse. Based on preliminary data, only 27 percent were paid on time over the last three months.

DEO officials didn't respond to questions posed over the past two weeks by the Times/Herald until an hour after the story was published online late Thursday afternoon. Although she didn't provide specifics, DEO spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz said in an email that "service levels" are better now than under the old system.

But labor researchers said recent data clearly show a severe decline in service.

"The system wasn't perfect before CONNECT," said Ali Bustamante, an economic policy analyst at Loyola University in New Orleans. "But by all accounts, it was better than this. Florida's hitting a new low in its ability to process claims effectively. And for whatever reasons, we're not hearing about it."

Overshadowed by a governor's race focused more on jobs created than those lost, the ranks of Florida's unemployed remain high. Although the state's 6.2 percent unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in six years, it doesn't include those who stopped looking for work.

"The actual unemployment numbers seriously understate the jobless numbers," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Research and Policy, a Washington, D.C., nonpartisan think tank. "When benefits expire, people overwhelmingly drop out of the workforce."

At the start of the year, Congress ended federal long-term unemployment benefits, cutting off an estimated 168,000 Floridians from aid, according to federal labor statistics.

Floridians who are eligible have to navigate one of the more difficult systems in the nation. In a 2013 report, the U.S. Department of Labor found that it was too hard for some unemployed people to get benefits, particularly the disabled and those who speak Spanish or Creole.

The $63 million system was supposed to improve access, but it was plagued with technical glitches from the start that prevented workers from receiving their claims.

The state began fining the contractor, Deloitte Consulting, and hired 330 new employees and a second contractor to monitor the project. Federal officials flew in to make sure claims were paid.

In January, Deloitte's lobbyist, Brian Ballard met with Adam Hollingsworth, Scott's chief of staff. Ballard chaired Scott's finance committee for his 2011 inauguration.

Hollingsworth later said he told Ballard that the state's relationship with Deloitte would improve when CONNECT improved.

By March, Panuccio told lawmakers the problems were resolved.

Yet between April 1 and June 30, the number of claims CONNECT paid dropped 64 percent from the first quarter, even though the number of claimants barely dipped at all.

"That can only mean they weren't processing claims fast enough — again," Bustamante said.

Despite the growing backlog, Deloitte's relationship with Florida did improve. In June, it negotiated a contract extension that pays the company another $1.5 million to fix its own errors.

Deloitte's contract extension ends Nov. 20, but gives the company the option to remain on the project another six months for up to $2.4 million.

"There's a limited universe of vendors," said Rebecca Dixon, senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. "And these claims websites are so complex that if something goes wrong, states are often stuck with the vendor it hired to fix it."

In all, Deloitte's total payday could be $49.6 million for the CONNECT job, 30 percent more than the contract's 2011 price.

Over the last year, three out of the four states with the slowest processing times for unemployment claims — Florida, California and Massachusetts — all relied on systems designed by Deloitte.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263. Follow @mikevansickler.

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