(DEO photo: Martha Jackovics)
The new website was launched two weeks ago, and as of yesterday 5,600 people have complained in writing, dozens more have emailed and the department has been deluged with phone calls about the botched website, and yet it still isn't working.
No, this website doesn't involve health insurance, but unlike that one, people don't have the option to wait for a fix later on. They need action and a fix right now, because this is the Florida unemployment benefits website, CONNECT, and it has left those who are entitled to benefits without them for weeks. So far all they've gotten from the state are empty promises, or misinformation, like that from the leaked memo which instructed that claimants not be told that the system was down at all.
This is causing a bottleneck of problems. For one, in spite of claims that they're working overtime to fix it, and that there are a few successes, there's no way to accurately say how many people have been prevented from filing, because the system does not track that, and people have complained to the Tampa Bay Times that there's absolutely no way to get through:
Internet snags, clogged phone lines and packed unemployment offices seem par for the course for dozens of people who have contacted the Tampa Bay Times saying they are on track to miss a month or more of claims.
Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity oversees the unemployment system and says it has 562 employees working overtime to address complaints and questions. Still, more than 1.1 million people have been disconnected from the phone helpline. At times, only one of every 25 callers can reach a person.
"There is absolutely no way to get through," said Julie Jared, 42, of Port Orange, who was laid off from a travel agency in September and is supposed to get $229 per week. "Even if you call every hour of every day, there's no way to get your issue addressed."
Jessica Sims, a spokeswoman for Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment system, said every claimant is important and the state is working with Deloitte — the contractor behind the project — to iron out the glitches. Thousands of claims are being processed per hour and benefits delayed or deleted due to technical errors will be backdated, she added.
The department touted the success of the revamp for a week before acknowledging that some claimants were erroneously blocked from entering the website or from claiming certain benefits.
The problems also point to another controversy involving unemployment benefits in Florida:
The situation highlights existing concerns from the U.S. Department of Labor about whether Florida is breaking federal law by allowing people to file claims only over the Internet.
Nelson has asked the U.S. Department of Labor to look into the state's launch of "CONNECT," the new system through which people seeking unemployment benefits must file their claims.
Since its debut two weeks ago, the state has been deluged by complaints from users who say the new system is not working. It will not let them enter needed information or give them access to needed pages.
Users have also been frustrated by a phone help line that has been virtually useless because it is so difficult to reach a customer service representative.
Nelson has asked the Labor Department to look into the matter to ensure "the state quickly fixes what has gone wrong," his office said in a statement. While the state is charged with managing its unemployment program, federal tax money pays for its administration.
"The main purpose behind this federal-state program is to help stabilize the economy during recessions," Nelson wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. "But it certainly won't be of much help in my state if those who have lost their jobs face protracted delays in seeking or receiving benefits."
Nelson's request will likely further chill the relationship between the U.S. Labor Department and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the agency that manages the jobless benefits system.
All of this comes on top of a program that was even harder to access for those who don't speak English or are disabled long before the new website went live.
Why, it's almost as if the state and Rick Scott are imposing undue burdens on the unemployed. Not to mention making any measure of the real numbers of unemployment benefits difficult to assess, adding to his fuzzy math concerning job and unemployment numbers on the eve of a reelection campaign.