Floridians should not buy the claims of a state official that the disastrous rollout of Florida's $63 million unemployment benefits website is entirely the fault of the vendor who built it. Certainly the technical glitches are vendor-related, but Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, has inexcusably allowed the website dysfunction to continue for months, first denying the extent of the problem and then moving too slowly to fix it. Meanwhile thousands of jobless Floridians are suffering without this essential safety net, with some falling into poverty.
Why was there no sign of outrage from lawmakers when Panuccio testified Wednesday before a state Senate committee? Why isn't Gov. Rick Scott publicly demanding action? U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has enlisted the U.S. Department of Labor to help fix the mess, and once again Floridians have to rely on Washington for protection from Tallahassee's incompetence.
Since the CONNECT website launched in mid-October, unemployed Floridians have had trouble signing up for and receiving jobless benefits. The average benefit is a modest $230 per week, but that can keep a family from getting evicted and allow a jobseeker to maintain their car while looking for work. Claimants say that the online process is error-prone and they can't get matters resolved when they try to contact DEO for help. Panuccio, who is responsible for the program, has a habit of passing the buck. He claimed in November that the media was exaggerating the problems. Now he says the fault lies entirely with Deloitte Consulting, the vendor that built the website.
When the federal health care reform website, healthcare.gov, failed miserably at least officials in the Obama administration accepted some of the blame. Scott and Panuccio have failed to take any ownership of the incompetent work on the state website. Claims with a question attached, whether because the claim is contested or some other reason, have clogged the website. About 60,000 of those are still outstanding. Frustrated claimants are still calling DEO by the tens of thousands every week.
Panuccio should have brought in outside help immediately to address this crisis for jobless Floridians, who by one estimate were denied more than $22 million in benefits in October and November. Yet only now has Panuccio announced a new $365,000 contract with a second vendor to consult on the project and added workers.
The Labor Department says it is dispatching experts who will first get unemployed Floridians paid the back-benefits they are due, and then work toward resolving the issues with the website.
Unemployed Floridians wouldn't be in this fix had it not been for a 2011 state law requiring all claimants to file for unemployment benefits online and take a "skills assessment." This made the process of applying for benefits more difficult for some populations, particularly non-English speakers and the disabled. Last year, Florida was last among states in the percentage of unemployed people who receive benefits, at 16 percent.
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Under Scott, workers in the state who were laid off for no fault of their own are being doubly punished. The help they were promised from the state has not materialized, and the Scott administration has barely shown it cares. The Legislature should reconsider the 2011 law this spring so at least the jobless can work around the computer system to apply for the benefits they are entitled to receive.