New Florida unemployment requirement doesn’t help jobless, does delay benefits

Florida Times-Union, Tampa Bay Times advance the story on state's flawed new program

MIAMI, FL — The scope of Florida’s unemployment system debacle and early failures to address it continue to emerge, with the Jacksonville-based Florida Times-Union and the Tampa Bay Times contributing important details with laurel-worthy coverage within the past week.

The Times-Union’s Matt Dixon reported on Tuesday that the state’s $63 million “modernization” effort has “blocked or delayed badly needed benefits to more than 100,000 Floridians who lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”

Dixon’s article covered the many problems with the state’s new unemployment claims website, unveiled in October. But the key contribution was his reporting on the controversial skills assessment that Florida now requires all applicants for unemployment benefits to complete. When Dixon asked the state how many people had been denied benefits, or suffered delays in receiving them, because they hadn’t completed the assessment, officials said they simply didn’t know. They weren’t tracking that information.

So the Times-Union, taking advantage of Florida’s expansive public records law, paid the state about $400 to compile the records. The results of that review, along with some other reporting, supported what critics have been saying: The assessment requirement doesn’t do much, if anything, to get people re-employed, but it does lead to scores of delayed and rejected claims—and unnecessary hardship for tens of thousands of Floridians.

From Dixon’s article:

Unnoticed, though, 120,006 people seeking unemployment compensation through September faced delays in receiving benefits for not completing the Initial Skills Review. That’s about one out of every eight applicants….

Of the 120,000, some 14,755 applicants were deemed ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits for failure to complete the Initial Skills Review, state records show.

In addition, many acknowledge the Initial Skills Reviews failed to live up to expectations. They were supposed to access each applicant’s skills, either to help with job placement or to identify areas where the job seeker needs additional training.

When asked last week during a Senate committee hearing if the reviews were working as intended, Chris Hart, president of Workforce Florida, responded, “Are we still being recorded?” before shooting a quick wink to lawmakers.

George Wentworth, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, called Dixon’s reporting “excellent” when I spoke with him. The NELP has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, claiming, among other things, that the skills assessment was causing people to lose benefits they were entitled to.

“What caught my attention [about the Times-Union story] was they got a piece of data that we’ve been looking for,” Wentworth said. “For 120,000 people to have their benefits delayed—that’s a ridiculously high number.”

Wentworth said he suspected those people were never paid retroactively for the benefits that were delayed.

“The confusion around the skills review means they lost benefits they’re not getting back,” he said.

Making matters worse is that, as Dixon found, the state apparently hasn’t been using the skills assessments for any purpose whatsoever. “They were intended to get a handle on people’s job skills and if they needed training that the state could give them to help them get new jobs, but there’s no evidence that happened,” he told me.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, a Republican who pushed for the skills assessment in the first place, is so frustrated with the system that she’s proposing new legislation to make the reviews voluntary.

Dixon quotes Detert’s line from a committee meeting: “Are we spending millions to help people, or are we spending millions to annoy unemployed people?”

Meanwhile, in a notable Feb. 14 story, Tampa Bay Times reporter Michael Van Sickler pressed forward with his probe of the buggy new web-based system, dubbed CONNECT, that applicants use to apply for benefits.

Working out of the joint Times/Miami Herald bureau in the state capital, Van Sickler dug up emails from state officials crowing about how well the system was working a day after it launched. But right from the start, he wrote, others at ground level “warned of a meltdown”:

“We have our off-duty police officer now … to handle the irate customers,” an executive director for a Pensacola job counseling center reported. “It’s going about like we expected—not very well.”

A Times/Herald review of nearly 1,000 of [program manager Tom] McCullion’s emails reveals a stark division between Gov. Rick Scott’s Department of Economic Opportunity and job centers across the state helping the unemployed navigate the new CONNECT system. McCullion and other top officials publicly declared an early victory. Those at job centers warned of an unfolding disaster.

“I’m dealing with chaos,” said one.

As I noted in January, this is the kind of follow-up this story needed. State officials tried for months to put a happy face on the new system for months, before turning on their outside consultant late last year. But the emails Van Sickler found show that state higher-ups had plenty of people telling them from the outset the same thing that reporters were finding on the ground—the new system is a mess.

Florida has a strong public records law, making it possible for reporters to test what state officials say. Kudos to both Dixon and Van Sickler for doing so.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: ,