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More evidence that Florida’s unemployment system needs a permanent fix | Editorial
Can Florida just get the unemployment payments right already?
Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed then-state Rep. Dane Eagle, a Cape Coral Republican and the outgoing House majority leader, as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in Sept., 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon, File)
Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed then-state Rep. Dane Eagle, a Cape Coral Republican and the outgoing House majority leader, as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in Sept., 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon, File) [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 19

Gov. Ron DeSantis acted responsibly by suspending collection proceedings against Floridians alleged to have been overpaid in jobless benefits. With the state’s unemployment system such a mess, this action will keep a broken bureaucracy from making even more mistakes. But Florida’s unemployment system needs a permanent fix that serves the jobless and taxpayers alike.

The state Department of Economic Opportunity mailed thousands of notices recently to Floridians who filed for unemployment, stating they must repay in some cases thousands of dollars — or face being sent to debt collectors. The notices have caused angst because they almost never say why the recipient owes the state money or how the amount was calculated. Some notices have even been mailed after the deadline to appeal them.

Officials had conceded the problem by promising not to send any non-fraudulent overpayment notices to collection agencies before 2023. But Friday, DeSantis ordered the department to extended the deadline “indefinitely.” That will relieve the pressure on thousands of Floridians already struggling to make ends meet. And it gives the state time to fix this and other problems plaguing Florida’s unemployment bureaucracy.

The notices are one offshoot of an inherently flawed unemployment system that was wholly unprepared for the onslaught of job losses brought by COVID-19. In its haste to fulfill claims last year, the state automatically sent money out without verifying the exact dates the recipient was eligible. That required recipients to navigate the state’s confusing online unemployment website, known as CONNECT, and to “claim” those benefits after the fact. If the recipient failed — many were unaware of the requirement in the first place — they were likely sent an overpayment notice.

DeSantis’ order acknowledges both the scale of the problem and the state’s culpability. “Many claimants, believing they were fully and accurately applying for Reemployment Assistance within the bounds of the law, received overpayments from the state,” the governor’s order states. It’s unclear how many notices were issued. DeSantis’ order also stays only non-fraudulent claims, and the governor said the DOE “must continue to vigorously investigate fraudulent overpayments.”

How the state can prosecute fraud without knowing how many innocents are caught in this bureaucratic maze is anybody’s guess. But as the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month, the DOE is trying to claw back possibly billions of dollars in non-fraudulent unemployment claims distributed during the first 18 months of the pandemic. A U.S. Department of Labor report on a sample of state benefits paid during the first year of the pandemic found an overpayment rate of 40 percent. These are huge sums that demand a more responsible handling of taxpayer money.

The overpayment notices are but the latest feature of a benefits system stricken with chaos and disarray. While DeSantis’ order will restore some calm for now, state lawmakers need to get serious about fixing the unemployment system. Jobless Floridians should be able to navigate the system easily, and depend on a reliable flow of assistance. And taxpayers should have the confidence that the state is managing the operation well. Neither is currently the case, and the Legislature should make a turnaround a priority in the coming session.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.