Florida’s unemployment system is a mess

The press is asking questions and showing human costs. Now, time to break the story open

MIAMI, FL — Tampa Bay Times writer Leonora LaPeter Anton did an admirable job this week putting a human face on a Florida story that deserves continued coverage: The state’s new web-based unemployment claims system is broken, and it’s unclear when public officials and the contractor who built it will get it fixed—or even who is responsible for the problems.

LaPeter Anton’s story follows Tina Cash, an out-of-work receptionist and pregnant single mother forced to sell her furniture and her infant car seat while she waits for the state to pay more than $2,000 in overdue unemployment benefits she is owed.

Cash, LaPeter Anton wrote:

is one of thousands of out-of-work Floridians who have gone weeks and months without receiving state unemployment benefits. The problems stem from the state’s new CONNECT website, which debuted Oct. 15. While state officials wrangle with Deloitte, the contractor, over repairs to the $63 million system, Cash and others struggle to keep the lights on and a roof over their heads.

Anton told me the story came together quickly after Times photographer Octavio Jones met Cash and heard about her problems with the unemployment program. After talking by phone with Cash over the weekend, Anton and Jones spent a day with her as she struggled to resolve her unemployment claim, dealt with being evicted from her apartment, and worked out ways to pay the bills she could.

“All day, she kept getting calls and telling people, ‘I owe you money,’” LaPeter Anton said. “You could see in that one day how dire her situation was.”

And Cash is just one of thousands, or even tens of thousands, affected by failures in the state program. Florida reporters have been cataloguing those flaws, but no one has quite cracked the story of what went wrong or who is responsible.

Like another infamous government website, the state’s new unemployment claims system was broken right out of the gate. The day after its launch, Michael Van Sickler and Brittany Alana Davis of the joint Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau picked up on complaints on social media and at local claims offices. Two months later, state officials were acknowledging the problems, and Deloitte had returned a chunk of money, but basic questions remained unaddressed. “What exactly are the issues? Why did Deloitte pay $1.5 million to the state? DEO (Department of Economic Opportunity) spokeswoman Monica Russell said she would get answers — later,” Van Sickler,
wrote in a Dec. 15 article

Since then, the state has withheld a $3 million payment, began fining Deloitte $15,000 per day, and made plans to double the in-house staff that works to resolve benefit issues. Still, as LaPeter Anton’s story noted, state officials say they can’t even determine how many people are owed overdue payments.

“Jessica Sims, a spokesperson for the agency, didn’t know how many people had struggled to get paid by the system. ‘It’s not working to give out consistent and reliable data,’ she said,” LaPeter Anton wrote.

But there are some indications of the scale of the problem. After the new system was implemented, weekly claims dropped by an average of 20,000, or 18 percent, Van Sickler reported in late December. And The New York Times’ Frances Robles, in an article about problems with web-based systems in Florida and other states, wrote this week that the number of people who are owed back unemployment benefits is in the tens of thousands. (Robles is a former colleague and close friend of mine.)

As Robles’ articles notes, Deloitte was also involved with troubled programs in California and Massachusetts. Still, Florida’s problems are not a clear-cut case of contractor error: Deloitte claims it complied with its contract, and blames the state process for the problems. There’s something of a he-said, she-said flavor to the dispute. Just who screwed up and how? Exactly how many people have been left without this important lifeline? How much will the new system, which was supposed to save money, end up costing taxpayers? We don’t have clear answers yet.

The story is still unfolding, and LaPeter Anton said the Times plans to monitor the problems closely. That’s good to hear. Just late last night, Van Sickler reported that the state has unexpectedly brought in another company to help fix the system.

That move has in turn raised a whole new set of open questions, he wrote:

DEO spokeswoman Monica Russell wouldn’t explain the sudden hiring of Capgemini. How sudden was it? In a Wednesday morning DEO meeting, in which the CONNECT project manager provided updates to an oversight board, the hiring of Capgemini wasn’t even disclosed.

How much will it cost? How was this job advertised? What other companies bid on it? The DEO wasn’t saying.

Florida’s statehouse reporters, especially Van Sickler, are asking the right questions about what went wrong here. And stories like LaPeter Anton’s demonstrate the high stakes and the human impact. The story hasn’t been broken open yet, but with the state’s strong public records laws, and the inevitability of an email trail somewhere, the time is ripe for an enterprising Florida reporter to dig up the answers.

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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: , , , ,