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ACROSS FLORIDA — As Florida unemployment applications passed the million mark this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for an investigation into the state's problem-plagued unemployment system.
Named the worst system in the country by the the job market website Zippia, Florida's unemployment system flaws became evident after the layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been very difficult, we’ve worked extremely hard on fixing a very broken system that you had with unemployment,” DeSantis said. “The system had a lot of problems. It couldn’t hold up.
DeSantis said he "had to bring in engineers to effectively rebuild" the Department of Economic Opportunity's CONNECT website. In addition, DeSantis said he added 72 servers to handle the barrage of online applications, brought in 250 contractors and pulled 2,000 employees from other state departments to man the Florida Reemployment Assistance Call Center. He also made paper applications available to thousands of people who are unable to successfully file for unemployment online.
“We’re starting to get good results that I’m happy about," he said. "We need to do more, but we’re much better than we were a month ago. If you go back four weeks, the system was in tatters. People couldn’t even get on."
An estimated 1.8 million Floridians have filed unemployment claims since March 15, about 18 percent of the state's workforce. Of the applications that have been submitted, 38 percent have been denied.
Residents from Citrus, Hardee, Hernando, Highland, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties account for more than 101,320 claims, or 9.8 percent of the total applications.
However, there's no data on the number of workers who have tried to file claims without success.
Unemployed workers complain that the online application system locks them out and say it's impossible to get through to anyone at the call center for help.
New Port Richey resident Veronica Stauch said she's been trying for more than a month to file an unemployment claim.
"I don't know if I'm doing it wrong," she said. "I keep getting kicked out. I cry on a daily basis because of it."
"It kicks me off halfway through when trying to claim my weeks," said Shirley Taylor. "This is a nightmare -- 10 to 12 hours a day trying to get into the system. What happens if I don't get through this?"
Others say they've successfully submitted unemployment applications but haven't heard from the state if or when they'll receive an unemployment check.
"I applied over five weeks ago and my application is still pending," said Heather Klinge. "Every time I call, it hangs up. I have no idea what to do."
In April, a dozen unemployed workers took to the streets, protesting the state's cumbersome unemployment system on Bayshore Boulevard.
"We are all going through the same thing together, losing our jobs and not being able to access the system," said Kelly Johnson of Dunedin.
Unemployed Florida residents have launched a Facebook group called Action Group for COVID-19 Unemployment.
Overwhelmed by the volume of unemployment applications, the state's old unemployment website was taken offline for three days in late April so the Department of Economic Opportunities could process the backlog of claims and roll out a new mobile-friendly website.
"The new app is much easier to use and to actually get on," Sheila Spera said. "I was able to enter my information and it does show all their steps completed. But it does not give you any status or if you were approved and when you should expect money. So it's basically worthless but at least I have a claim number."
Last year, the state paid out 326,000 unemployment claims for the entire year. As of May 5, the DEO has paid 481,497 unemployment claims totaling more than $1.017 billion in the past two months, according to the Reemployment Assistance Claims Dashboard. That amounts to less than half the claims successfully filed during the same period.
"The system was in tatters," DeSantis said. "People couldn't even get on. There's going to be a whole investigation that's going to need to be done about how the state of Florida could have paid $77 million for this thing however many years ago."
On Monday, DeSantis ordered Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to investigate what went wrong with the system global government contractor Deloitte Consulting LLC was paid $77 million to build
“It was not a good use of taxpayers’ money,” he said. “I think everything needs to looked at 100 percent.”
House Democrats are blaming former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, for the system's failures, claiming the glitches were intentional to prevent Floridians from applying for benefits.
Jobless Floridians previously were able to apply for unemployment by phone. Not long after the Great Recession ended in 2007 and the federal government increased unemployment taxes on businesses, Scott and his Republican-controlled legislature embarked on a plan to reduce unemployment payouts.
He contracted with global government contractor Deloitt Consulting Inc. to create the CONNECT website for $77 million and made it mandatory for the jobless to file for unemployment online as well as report their job-hunting attempts online every two weeks.
At the same time Scott slashed benefits and shortened the weeks of eligibility.
The 12 weeks unemployed Floridians can collect benefits now matches North Carolina for the shortest in the country and the $275-a-week maximum jobless benefit is among the lowest in the country.
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Democrats said the changes made by Scott and the Florida Legislature in 2013 saved businesses millions of tax dollars by reducing the number of people who successfully applied for unemployment benefits.
The National Employment Law Project called the restrictions and procedural hurdles imposed on jobless workers by the state of Florida "devastating."
A study by the National Employment Law Project found that fewer than one in eight Floridians receive jobless benefits (just 12 percent, compared with 27 percent nationally).
The report examined the impact of changes to Florida’s unemployment program since 2011 and concluded that by systematically making it harder for jobless Floridians to access benefits, the state now ranks at or near the bottom nationally in helping unemployed workers.
“Unemployment insurance is a basic lifeline for America’s workers when they lose jobs through no fault of their own,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Workers earn these benefits through their work histories, and like any insurance policy, the purpose is to help provide needed financial support when there is a catastrophic event—in this case, involuntary job loss.”
In the 80 years since the Social Security Act was passed, states have been held responsible for operating unemployment insurance programs that are both fair and accessible, said Owens.
"What the report tells us is that, over the past four years, the state of Florida has been thwarting the fundamental rights of its unemployed workers to apply and qualify for unemployment insurance," she said.
The NELP report showed that:
Less than four in 10 Florida workers (39 percent) who apply ever receive a first payment, the second-lowest rate in the country, compared to 68 percent nationally;
The number of workers who have been disqualified for not satisfying procedural reporting requirements has quadrupled since online filing was mandated in August 2011, despite the fact that fewer than half as many individuals are claiming benefits;
In 2014, the year following the launch of CONNECT, the number of disqualifications for work search and availability doubled from 64,000 to 137,000, despite a 20 percent drop in average weekly claims.
Cutting the maximum weeks of benefits available from 26 to its current limit of 12 weeks has contributed to the Florida unemployment insurance program no longer meeting its goal of serving as a bridge from the loss of one job to suitable new employment. Approximately 62 percent of eligible Florida claimants exhaust their UI benefits without having found a new job, the highest such rate in the nation.
“Filing for unemployment insurance in Florida operates like an obstacle course," said George Wentworth, senior staff attorney with NELP and one of the report’s authors. "Extremely large numbers of workers are being disqualified for reasons that amount to inability to successfully navigate various online transactions. Unemployed workers should not be treated worse in Florida than in other states. Florida’s workforce deserves an unemployment insurance program that is both fair and accessible. We believe that is their right under federal law.”
NELP and Florida Legal Services have jointly sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez citing the report’s findings and urging the Department of Labor to investigate claims that Florida is violating provisions of the Social Security Act that require state unemployment programs to provide fair access to benefits and prohibit substantial numbers of disqualifications to eligible workers.
DeSantis, however, isn't willing to lay the blame on Scott. He said the unemployment website designed Deloitte Consulting LLC was a "jalopy."
“This thing was a clunker, there’s no doubt about it. It was designed with all these different things to basically fail, I think," he said.
DeSantis noted that even after he waived Scott's burdensome online work search and registration requirements, the system still couldn't handle the onslot of unemployment claims.
Deloitte has not responded to the recent criticisms but, following initial complaints after the system was launched, the company told lawmakers that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration bogged down the system by adding 1,500 special requirements.
DeSantis ordered Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel's investigation just hours after state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried asked Miguel to investigate DeSantis for “potential mismanagement” of the state’s unemployment system.
Florida has spent more than $100 million on upgrades to the system including purchasing the 72 new servers. Yet the system is still facing significant backlogs processing unemployment applications, said Fried.
“State auditors cited major, systematic problems with CONNECT in 2015, 2016 and 2019 reports," said Fried. "Gov. DeSantis was briefed on these problems upon taking office. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented requests for unemployment assistance, but has also exposed a failure to correct the problems."
Last week, Scott defended the system he put in place.
“None of these systems were designed for this number of people,” he said. “You know the way it’s set up is the way it’s always been set up. People always had an obligation to look for work to the extent they can. And it was tough when I became governor, and so we worked hard to make sure that people could get jobs.”
In a Tweet on April 28 in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the Republican senator indicated that he believes unemployed workers are now receiving too many benefits.
As part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by the U.S. Senate in late March by a vote of 96 to 0, unemployed Americans will receive an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits. Scott was among the senators who voted for the measure.
The Wall Street Journal article stated that, "as support from stimulus laws is added to state benefits, the average weekly payment to a laid-off worker has risen to about $978 from the $377.97 the Labor Department said was paid on average late last year."
Scott said he's now reconsidering his vote.
"If given the chance to make more on a government program than in a job, some will make the rational and reasonable decision to delay going back to work, hampering our economic recovery,” he said.
This is a big problem that I’ve been warning about for weeks now. If given the chance to make more on a government program than in a job, some will make the rational and reasonable decision to delay going back to work, hampering our economic recovery. https://t.co/cqU53fJFnB
— Rick Scott (@SenRickScott) April 28, 2020
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