DEO defends 'nightmare' unemployment website

Published March 16, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Despite harsh reviews by the state's auditor general, Florida's $77 million unemployment website is working just fine, according to agency officials in charge of the project.

"Many of the audit findings are now stale," Tom Clendenning, director of the Department of Economic Opportunity's workforce services, told a joint legislative auditing committee Monday. "The overwhelming majority of all the issues identified in the findings have been corrected."

Asked to grade the new CONNECT website, Clendenning gave it a B+.

Eddie Batista, an unemployed sales representative in West Palm Beach, said CONNECT still gets a failing grade.

"I'm disgusted," Batista said when told about Clendenning's comments. "It still doesn't work. I don't know what we're going to do when the next bill comes in. We're broke. A B+? No way, it's an F."

The audit of CONNECT, which serves a system of about 1 million claimants, covered a period between Feb. 24, 2014, and June 30, 2014, but was only released last month. It identified nine areas of concern that included problems with rampant fraud, technical glitches, delayed payments for thousands of jobless workers, and inaccurate claims that paid either too much or too little.

While confirming for thousands of jobless workers that their issues were not isolated, the audit raised concern among lawmakers. Clendenning tried to minimize those concerns Monday by saying the system was performing better than the prior system. Call center volume is lower. Caseloads are down.

Putting a happy face on the project is nothing new for Clendenning and others at the Department of Economic Opportunity.

When CONNECT launched in October 2013, DEO staff prematurely exchanged congratulatory emails even as there were widespread reports of system failure. It took weeks for DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio to acknowledge there were issues with the vendor, Deloitte Consulting. And it wasn't until the federal government intervened early last year that payment of thousands of claims that weren't getting processed because of glitches with CONNECT were made.

Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, said he was worried about the payments to Deloitte, which has been paid about $40 million and stands to earn another $7 million in repairs.

"This has turned into a nightmare," Raulerson said.

Clendenning said the DEO had penalized Deloitte $8 million. But Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, pointed out that Deloitte would earn most of that back because of its project extension.

"I don't know about you guys, but $77,921,000 is a lot of money for a system that we've had issues with," Mayfield said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, pressed Clendenning for a more precise update on CONNECT.

"So every item is not fixed and the potential for failure still exists?" Gibson asked.

"I suppose there's always an opportunity for failure," he said. "While the overwhelming majority of the issues have been fixed, there's still work being done."