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Labor Dept. officials heading to Florida to probe jobless website woes

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014 by John Kennedy

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.

 

 

 

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.”

 

Feds propose voting changes

Monday, November 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Justice Department is eyeing changes to the country’s voting processes to address a myriad of problems including long lines and other voting woes that again shined a spotlight on Florida.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who oversees the agency’s civil rights division, some proposed fixes during a speech at a George Washington Law School symposium last week.

While he didn’t single out Florida by name, many of Perez’s observations reflected problems encountered by voters, including those in Palm Beach County, during early voting and on Election Day. The Justice Department monitored elections in 23 states, including Florida, this year.

Perez said DOJ is still reviewing the federal monitors’ observations.

“But there is at least one obvious takeaway, which the country has spent much of the last week discussing: there were widespread breakdowns in election administration in state after state, which forced voters in many states to wait in line for hours at a time – in some states and counties, up to six hours or more,” Perez said.

Among the changes proposed by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who oversees DOJ’s civil rights division, are:
- Automatic registration of all eligible citizens;
- Same-day registration;
- Allowing voters who move to cast regular ballots, instead of provisional ballots that have a greater chance of being discarded, on Election Day.

But Perez went even farther, saying reform is needed regarding “deceptive election practices,” which he called “dishonest efforts to prevent certain voters from casting their ballots.

Florida was one of more than a dozen states that passed elections laws critics say were aimed at making it harder for Democrats and minorities, who helped boost Obama into the White House in 2008, to cast their ballots.

“Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls – from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot,” Perez said.

Perez also addressed the issue of voter fraud, which GOP sponsors and supporters of Florida’s election law (HB 1355) said was the reason behind the changes.

“Let’s work to prevent fraud, but let’s not erect new, unnecessary requirements that have a discriminatory impact. Let’s have a debate on the merits without trying to make it harder for our perceived opponents to vote,” he said.

Provisional ballots are also a concern, Perez said. DOJ is considering whether Congress should impose national standards for counting provisional ballots in federal elections, he said.

And Perez also targeted what he called “partisan mischief” in state and local elections administration.

“We risk leaving our election processes open to partisan mischief – or to the perception of such mischief. We should have a serious conversation about solutions to this risk, including developing an entirely professionalized and non-partisan system for administering our elections,” he said.

Dueling lawsuits in voter purge: DOJ to sue Gov. Rick Scott admin

Monday, June 11th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Department of Justice will sue Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over a controversial non-citizen voter purge, the federal agency told Scott’s administration the same day the governor filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez ordered Secretary of State Ken Detzner to “immediately cease this unlawful conduct,” blaming Scott’s administration for the problematic purge.

“Because the State has indicated its unwillingness to comply with these requirements, I have authorized the initiation of an enforcement action against Florida in federal court.”

Perez’s 0611 DOJTODETZNERfive-page letter came in response to a missive from Detzner last week accusing President Obama’s administration of conspiring to keep Florida from cleansing its voter rolls. Perez flatly denied it.

“In short, your claim that the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security have worked in concert to deny Florida access to the SAVE Program is simply wrong,” he wrote.

The SAVE database won’t work by simply matching the names and dates of birth of potential non-citizens. That’s what the Florida Department of State did with driver license and voter registration records to create a list of more than 180,000 voter flagged as potentially inelgible to cast their ballots. Many of those on the error-riddled list turned out to be naturalized citizens, and others were born in the U.S.

Scott used the purge to pump up tea party supporters at a rally in Tallahassee yesterday.

Scott has repeatedly blamed the problematic list on DHS, which failed to give Florida permission to access the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or “SAVE,” program that has more complete immigration data.

But Perez blamed Scott’s administration for the scrub flub.

“By your own admission, Florida has been on notice for at least eight months that the SAVE Program can verify naturalized and derived United States citizens only if Florida provided the appropriate numeric identifiers, and where necessary, the underlying documentation. But Florida has failed to either to provide the necessary information to DHS, or to confirm that the necessary information would be available for verification purposes under the SAVE Program,” Perez wrote. “As a result, the significant problems you are encountering in administering this new program are of your own creation.”

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