Labor Dept. officials heading to Florida to probe jobless website woesby John Kennedy | January 14th, 2014
U.S. Labor Department officials are sending staff to Florida this week to monitor continuing problems with the state’s CONNECT website, which has frustrated thousands of Floridians seeking to file for unemployment benefits, Sen. Bill Nelson said late Tuesday.
The federal agency has already slapped Gov. Rick Scott’s Department of Economic Opportunity over the 2011 law enacted by the Republican-led Legislature which requires that all benefit applications be filed online. Labor officials last year said the requirement discriminates against minorities and the disabled who may have trouble accessing computers.
The $63 million CONNECT website, which became the online portal for those seeking jobless benefits Oct. 15, has been problem-plagued. DEO officials blamed contractor Deloitte Consulting LLP for the problems and the company, in turn, puts much of the blame on the state.
Meanwhile, stories abound of Floridians struggling to get needed dollars for gas, rent and other necessities.
“The secretary of labor has assured me his key staff that handle unemployment insurance will be in Tallahassee by the end of the week; and, they’ll stay there until the problems are fixed,” Nelson, a Democrat, said Tuesday night.
Nelson said he spoke with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez who told him that the initial purpose of his team’s trip will be to try to find way to pay those with continuing claims now and fix problems with the Florida system later.
A workers advocacy organization, the National Employment Law Project, which filed a complaint in 2012 that led to last year’s Labor Department ruling, said jobless Floridians may have lost more than $20 million in benefits during October and November, alone.
The state is still negotiating with federal officials over a remedy to the earlier discrimination findings. The problems with CONNECT may add yet another facet to the discussions between state and federal officials, according to attorneys with Florida Legal Services, also a party to the earlier complaint.
DEO last month withheld a $3 million payment and began fining Deloitte $15,000-a-day over the site’s performance. Deloitte shot back by saying that any lingering problems are the state’s fault.
State officials announced last week that they plan to add 330 more staffers over the next three months to deal with long waits and disputed claims.
Jesse Panuccio, DEO’s executive director, has said that the new hires will cost the state less than $165,000 per week, with federal dollars available to cover the expense.
DEO officials are scheduled to provide an update on the CONNECT website Wednesday to a Senate budget panel.