The state computer system that frustrated millions of unemployed Floridians seeking jobless benefits will likely take up to $244 million to fix and maintain over the next five years, a state consultant says.
“This comes with a price,” Dane Eagle, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, told a state Senate committee on Monday.
His department has released a 200-page report chronicling the woes of the embattled agency’s disastrous performance last year as it distributed billions in state and federal benefits to millions of unemployed Floridians who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. As of Sunday, the state had paid more than $2.3 billion to more than 2.2 million Floridians who sought help since last March 15.
The report’s bottom line: The agency needs to make business and technology changes that will allow it to respond to the public’s shifting demands for help, essentially putting an end to the website lockouts, long waits for staff help and misplaced client information that plagued the unemployed after the pandemic staggered the state’s economy last March.
The tab to upgrade computer software and systems that would smooth communications between the public and agency staffers, enhance security and improve data storage would come to $73.3 million over the next two years, the report estimated. Another $8 million-plus would be spent annually on maintenance between 2030 and 2026.
In the meantime, the agency’s annual operating budget would jump from $12 million for Fiscal Year 2020-21 to $41.3 million annually through 2025-26.
The report was authored by ISF Inc., a private consulting firm. Its Jacksonville office reviewed the agency’s pandemic exploits between last November and last month for a fee of $247,000, according to state documents.
“This is by no means our Bible,” Eagle told the Senate committee on Monday. But it is a baseline for the discussion he expects to have with lawmakers who would have to approve the money.
To ensure the fixes happen, the agency is asking the state Legislature to create two new oversight offices: the Office of Economic Accountability and Transparency, and the Reemployment Assistance Modernization Strategic Planning Office. The latter office would issue annual reports to the governor, the speaker of the Florida House and to the Senate president.
Proposed legislation to authorize the program and appropriate the money will be sponsored by Broward County Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point. and Senate President Pro Tempore Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach.
“The last year has been incredibly difficult for families across our state,” LaMarca said in a statement released by the agency last Friday. “Losing loved ones and being out of work has put a tremendous burden on all of our communities.”
Bean said a “partnership” between the economic opportunity department and the newly created offices “is vital in ensuring accountability with the state’s reemployment assistance program. Floridians are frustrated with the current system.”
Neither LaMarca nor Bean could be reached for comment Monday.
Eagle, a former state legislator appointed last fall as the department’s executive director, said he was tasked by Gov. Ron DeSantis to ensure the overhaul is accomplished, and indicated the plan would involve both federal and state money.
He shared the consultant’s review and recommendations Monday before the state Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response in Tallahassee.
The report’s narrative carries a sympathetic tone, “The department continues to perform tirelessly to ensure benefits are provided to claimants,” declares the first of seven “key findings.”
According to the second finding, “The CONNECT system was not built to process the volume of claims received during the pandemic,” the report says, referring to the agency’s overloaded computer system.
It restates many of the familiar events that befell the CONNECT system and compares them with those of other states.
“Florida’s COVID response is representative of that of other states, simply scaled larger due to Florida’s size and proportional share of tourism and hospitality as a percentage of state gross domestic product (GDP),“ the report says, referring the state industries hit hardest by unemployment. “This resulted in a hundred-fold increase in claim volume. Ultimately, Florida would receive more claims in nine months than it had in the previous eight years combined.”
“Florida scaled up the CONNECT system and staff and employed additional solutions like implementing robotic process automation, virtual waiting rooms, and a new system just for receiving new claims,” the report said.
But even today, unemployed Floridians are still reporting glitches, delays and missteps in the calculation and distribution of their benefits.
Nonetheless, Eagle defended his agency’s staff before the committee Monday.
“It certainly wasn’t the fault of the staff,” he said. “The state employees were dedicated to their service. They are not political in mind; they were service oriented.”