MIAMI, FL — At the start of April, there was big news in Florida: The state’s dismal unemployment rate had dropped to its lowest level in four years, and below the national average for the first time since the beginning of the recession.
The news continued a three-year downward trend in joblessness for a state whose vital real estate and tourism industries had been hit hard during the downturn. After peaking above 11 percent in January 2010, Florida’s unemployment had dropped to 7.7 percent.
Yet the declining figures bewildered Toluse Olorunnipa, a Tallahassee-based capital reporter for The Miami Herald, as he looked over the financials of a major unemployment contractor in Florida: over the same period, its haul from the state government appeared to have risen.
The company, Worldwide Interactive Networks—WIN, for short—had a three-year contract with Florida to administer an online skills assessment to the state’s applicants for unemployment benefits. The online test was a new requirement mandated by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott in 2011.
Olurunnipa had been keeping an eye WIN since early 2012, “when people began contacting me to talk about the trouble they were having with the system,” he told me by email. There was a sense among some applicants that the system was designed to deter Floridians from obtaining unemployment assistance.
WIN’s contract originally called for the company to receive annual payments of $2 million; in mid-2012, that number was bumped to $2.7 million. Underpinning the dollar figure was a state estimate that the company would serve 1 million benefits-seekers annually—more jobless residents than existed across Florida. “The 1 million number seemed a bit high,” Olurunnipa said, “so I looked deeper into the numbers and found that not only was the contractor testing far less than 1 million people annually, its funding was increasing even as the governor was hailing the state’s declining unemployment rate.”
In fact, Olurunnipa found, WIN was only testing about 40,000 applicants a month. He also found something else: The company had five lobbyists in Tallahassee and had donated more then $170,000 to the state Republican Party, which controlled the Legislature and governor’s mansion. At that point, he says, “I knew I had a story.”
That engrossing story, “Company gets bigger state contract even as unemployment rate falls,” went to print two weeks ago. It’s typical of the work Olurunnipa does; his job consists of “covering economic development, business and consumer issues as they play out in government policy,” he tells me.