TAMPA, FL — In the wake of a massive failure of the state's unemployment claims system, on Friday state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, called on the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to open an audit into the Department of Economic Opportunity.
Thousands of newly jobless Floridians said they've been unable to file unemployment claims due to problems with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's Connect website. DEO Executive Director Ken Lawson said the system is unable to handle the volume of users who recently lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Toledo is appealing to the chairmen of the auditing committee, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, to investigate what went wrong with a system that $77 million in taxpayer dollars was spent to create.
“I am calling on Chairmen Brandes and Fischer to open an audit into how the DEO spent such a large sum of money to run a website that has seen the same unfixed problems in the past five years," she said. "If these problems were not solved, we must determine where the appropriation went and why the DEO did not seek to prepare for the economic impact of COVID-19.”
Neither chairman has responded to Toledo's appeal at this time.
See related story: Coronavirus: Florida Unemployment Claims Cripple State's System
With unemployment claims in Florida at all-time record of 348,511, including 227,000 filed just last week, claims far exceed the previous record of more than 40,000 in 2009.
“People need assistance processing their claims. My office has been inundated with calls from constituents that application pages will not load, or that in-progress applications reset entirely," Toledo said.
Lawson said the DEO has received 1.5 million calls from job seekers complaining about the system. A third of those calls are from people having problems resetting their PINs to allow them to access the system.
“Our system was designed to help our state during a hurricane, but not during a global pandemic,” said Lawson.
The system has had problems since it came online in 2013.
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On Monday, House Democrats blamed the former Florida governor, U.S. Sen Rick Scott, accusing him of intentionally implementing an inferior system to prevent Floridians from successfully applying for unemployment. At that time, Scott also slashed benefits and shortened the number of weeks of eligibility.
The 12 weeks unemployed Floridians can collect benefits matches North Carolina for the shortest in the country and the $275-a-week maximum jobless benefit is among the lowest in the country.
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 Florida Democratic Party has launched a petition drive urging DeSantis to take immediate action to correct the problems with the system, saying Florida "still offers some of the worst unemployment benefits in the country and Floridians struggle to get through the outdated and glitchy system to even apply for the benefits."
“Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature must fix Rick Scott’s broken unemployment system. Florida only supplies 12 weeks of benefits and the maximum benefit is more than a hundred dollars below the national average," said Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party. "Democrats and Republicans have put together unemployment assistance at the federal level to assist the unemployed – we must do the same in Florida, and we must act fast.”
Party officials said DeSantis' steps so far to alleviate the problems with the system have fallen short.
DeSantis authorized Lawson to do "whatever it takes" to fix the system. Earlier this week, Lawson announced he was adding 250 people to the Florida Reemployment Assistance Call Center and hiring a company to create a mobile-friendly website so residents can use their smart phones and pads to apply.
"DeSantis’ initial steps to ease some of the barriers to receiving unemployment benefits do not go far enough to solve the glaring problems of the state’s unemployment system," said Rizzo. "The state needs to expand the number of weeks Floridians can receive unemployment, increase the cap past the meager $275 a week, improve the state’s website and hotline, and roll back punitive restrictions enacted by former Gov. Rick Scott in 2011."
Rizzo pointed to a 2015 report by the National Employment Law Project, which found that fewer than one in eight Floridians receive jobless benefits and six in 10 had been denied benefits without ever receiving any jobless benefits at all.
DeSantis agreed during a news conference Thursday that fixing the system is a “top priority."
“This system is not handling the needs of the people of Florida in an adequate way,” DeSantis said “We need to do more.”
He issued an executive order calling for the DEO to issue paper applications so out-of-work residents don't have to depend on the state's website to apply for benefits. He also called on other state agencies to help the DEO field calls from job seekers.
Additionally, on Wednesday the governor announced he was waiving the requirement to wait a week to receive unemployment benefits through May 8. Previously, DeSantis waived the work search and online work registration requirements for Reemployment Assistance during the coronavirus crisis.
People filing for unemployment will not be required to register in Employ Florida or submit information on a biweekly basis on the employers contacted each week. The waiving of the waiting week is applicable to anyone who has files for Reemployment Assistance between March 29 and May 8.