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Signs emerge that logjam at unemployment site may be ending

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

The arrival in Tallahassee of a team of U.S. Labor Department officials is apparently breaking the logjam for thousands of jobless Floridians unable to get their benefits through the state’s troubled unemployment compensation website.

Labor officials have given the state permission to pay unemployment claims to anyone whose case has been under review for seven days or longer, said Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the state’s Department of Employment Opportunity.

“This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system,” Panuccio said. “Some claimants have suffered and DEO and USDOL are committed to helping them through all legal and available means.”

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who pushed the Labor Department to intercede in the state’s trouble praised the federal action.

“The secretary of labor promised me that he would send his folks to Florida to fix the mess the state has made of its unemployment benefits system, and it seems he’s doing exactly that,” Nelson said.

DEO has been flooded with complaints about the CONNECT website since system for applying for benefits was launched in mid-October.  Social media is filled with posts from Floridians who say they have endured a computer hell as they try to file claims and are alternately kicked off the site or forced to wait hours on helplines.

Panuccio last week told a state Senate committee that 73 percent of claims are being paid within a week. But he acknowledged that as many as 60,000 Floridians may be in the “adjudication” status awaiting a determination of their claims.

Labor’s action should accelerate payments for many, officials said.

Testifying to the Senate panel last week, Panuccio placed blame for the $63 million website on Deloitte Consulting LLP.

The technology giant, which has had problems developing similar websites in Massachusetts and California, has been fined $15,000 daily by the state economic opportunity department since Dec. 23 for failing to deliver what the state calls a “fully functioning” system. The state also withheld a $3 million payment to the company last month.

Deloitte has responed that many of the problems are rooted in the state system – and “beyond Deloitte’s control.”

The federal attention is not the first time the U.S. Labor Department has weighed in on Florida’s handling of jobless benefits.

After a workers advocacy organization, the National Employment Law Project, filed a complaint in 2012, the federal agency slapped Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over a 2011 law enacted by the Republican-led Legislature, which requires that all benefit applications be filed online. U.S. officials said the requirement discriminates against minorities and the disabled who may have trouble accessing computers.

Federal officials are still negotiating with the state over possible remedies to the 2011 law – although some Florida Democrats in the Legislature said Wednesday that the online-only system should be revamped to help those without easy access.

The National Employment Law Project meanwhile said jobless Floridians may have lost more than $22 million in benefits during October and November because of problems with CONNECT.

While the initial problems with CONNECT mostly involved faulty PIN numbers and applicants having trouble submitting claims for specific weeks, the bulk of the hold-up now stems from cases being “adjudicated.”

Nelson again asks Labor to probe CONNECT flaws

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Amid continuing problems with Florida’s CONNECT website for unemployment benefits, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson renewed his call Wednesday for federal officials to investigate whether Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is doing all it can to fix the site.

Nelson in October similarly asked the U.S. Labor Department to look into flaws revealed in CONNECT’s Oct. 15 rollout. Thousands of jobless Floridians have been struggling to file benefit claims and have deluged overburdened help lines.

“Specifically, I ask that you investigate whether the Department of Economic Opportunity is currently in compliance with section 303(a)(1) of the Social Security Act and associated Department regulations requiring states to timely pay unemployment compensation “when due,” and, if not, what actions the Department can take to ensure timely payment of claims due to Floridians,” Nelson wrote in a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity is battling with tech giant Deloitte Consulting LLC, designers of the state’s $63 million website. Each side blames the other for problems which have forced jobless Floridians to spend days trying to file benefits or repeatedly dial call centers seeking help.

State officials announced last week 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, said Tuesday that the new hires will cost the state less than $165,000-per-week, with federal dollars available to cover the expense.

Still, for the Gov. Rick Scott administration, which has ridiculed Congress and the Obama administration for overspending, the website woes are a problem. They also potentially undermine a central part of his re-election profile as the ‘let’s get to work’ governor.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, last fall urged the federal Labor Department to launch an investigation into CONNECT’s balky rollout.

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.

The department’s decision to throw more bodies into the mix may not prove that successful.

“I’ve had 3 different reps handle my acct in the last 2 weeks. They asked for the same information over and over again and that it would expedited to an adjudicator. Guess what, nothing has been done,” Anthony Dezenzio of Panama City wrote on a DEO Facebook site this week.

Panuccio on Tuesday continued to emphasize that the system is getting better. Since the site deputed Oct. 15, he said 1.1 million claims have been filed and more than $335 million in benefits distributed.

On Monday, he added that more than 18,000 claims were completed and $4.9 million paid to unemployed Floridians.

“Deloitte has committed to bringing additional programmers to Florida to address technical issues and is working on a plan to solve all remaining problems,” Panuccio said. “This is a step in the right direction and each day, improvements to the system continue to be made.”

 

State’s jobless office staffs up amid continuing problems with website

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Already battling with a consulting giant over a flawed website, the state’s unemployment agency is adding 330 more staffers over the next three months to deal with long waits and disputed claims.

Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Florida Department of Employment Opportunity, announced the extraordinary action in an email Thursday.

“We are dedicated to making sure that every claim is processed quickly and we will continue to work until every claimant is served,” Panuccio wrote.

DEO will add 100 ‘adjudicators’ this month to help resolve unemployment claims disputes, another 100 in February and 50 more in March, doubling the size of the unit. While left unsaid, the staffing-up may be a sign that the agency expects a long siege with Deloitte Consulting LLP, which designed the CONNECT website that has proved problematic.

Panuccio last month said the state would withhold a $3 million payment and fining the company $15,000-a-day over the site’s performance. Deloitte shot back by suggesting that any lingering problems may be the state’s fault.

While problems with Florida’s CONNECT site initially involved users having trouble entering PIN numbers and data for the weeks they were seeking payment, Panuccio said delays now occur chiefly when an applicant’s eligibility for benefits is questioned.

The state last month also announced it was then adding 192 temporary workers to assist with claims and has extended the hours of call centers established to assist those filing.

 

Scott filling out inner circle with Crist holdover, axed Sink employee

Friday, January 14th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott added five more high-level workers to his staff – including one fired by his former gubernatorial opponent Alex Sink – as the new governor continues to put together an administration at the end of his second official week on the job.

Scott hired Melinda Miguel to come back to her old post as inspector general, which she also held under Gov. Charlie Crist.

And Scott tapped Doug Darling as his third deputy chief of staff (Darling will be in charge of Cabinet affairs). Then-Chief Financial Officer Sink axed Darling, who was her chief of the Division of Accounting and Auditing, for failing to discover a scheme to defraud the state of millions of dollars. The plan was revealed by an auditing firm. Darling, a former Marine, later went to work as chief of staff and, until now, inspector general for the Department of Environmental Protection.

Jesse Panuccio, an associate at Cooper & Kirk, and C.B Upton, general counsel for the Department of State, will join Scott’s legal team.

And Brian Hughes will go to work for Scott’s spokesman Brian Burgess. Hughes recently served as spokesman for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater’s winning campaign. Hughes also served in the military and is a decorated Air Force vet, according to a press release on Scott’s Facebook page.

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