TAMPA, Fla. - Florida’s unemployment benefits system failed thousands of people when they needed help the most. Now claimants say it’s still holding up their benefits as state leaders consider plans to build a new system.
A proposal from the Department of Economic Opportunity would add 435 additional employees and create a new cloud-based unemployment benefits process. If approved, those expenses for the new system would be spread over two years, costing nearly $33 million this budget year, and more than $40 million next year.
DEO executive director Dane Eagle based his proposal on the results of a 200-page audit citing issues with the current ‘Connect’ system.
In 2013, former Governor Rick Scott launched the Connect site at a cost of $77 million. It crashed, glitched and held up benefits from the start. Then, when the pandemic struck and the job market cratered, the systemic problems with Connect were fully revealed.
Governor Ron DeSantis was initially caught off guard. Last March, while people were flooding us with complaints, DeSantis advised claimants to use the site because he said his administration told him it was good.
State auditors had flagged hundreds of issues with the unemployment system in 2019, but the governor said the audit did not reach his desk. As he learned more, DeSantis said the system was designed with pointless roadblocks to frustrate people to the point that many give up and leave the money behind.
The state scrambled to fix what the governor called a ‘jalopy,’ and to its credit, it has made progress in paying out claims. But Florida still pays among the lowest level of benefits in the nation, and people who lost jobs like Scott Bedford still can’t get benefits from his job loss last March.
"None of them can give me any information. They just say you’ve got to sit and wait, and I’m like, I’ve waited," said Berdford. "I became homeless because of the situation, I’ve lost my car because of the situation."
Like many, he discovered he wasn’t eligible for state benefits. Then he discovered he can’t get his federal benefits for March through May -- when he was out of work -- because his claim was incorrectly dated for July. In December, they changed it, but to the wrong date yet again.
"My effective date changed to Dec. 13 and so I’m waiting for them again to change it back to March. It feels like I’m on a merry-go-round going round and round. And getting nowhere," Bedford continued.
Vanessa Brito says she still comes across problems like that a lot. She’s an activist who tries to get people through what the governor called ‘pointless roadblocks’
She said one of the biggest problems is the system cuts off benefits because it thinks people went back to work when they really didn’t.
"They were asked if they had a return-to-work date. At the time many companies said employees would tentatively be coming back on this date," she said, while noting many of those dates got pushed back or people accepted jobs that fell through, and it held up benefits.
"People who thought they were going back to work have been stuck on a hold for weeks," she explained.
Another big problem is fraud. As we moved into 2021, the state noticed a significant jump in new claims likely tied to scam artists claiming benefits in other people’s names, a growing problem other states are facing as well.
"What they’re doing is they’re going on the dark web and purchasing stolen information that includes your name, your date of birth, your Social Security number. They might even purchase a copy of your license, depending on what the requirements are in each state. Then they use that stolen information to enter into the unemployment insurance system to get the benefit," said Haywood Talcove, CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions Government.
The state responded by ramping up fraud detection, but legitimate claimants say it has held up their benefits as well.
We asked the DEO to respond to the concerns and complaints raised in our report. A spokesman sent us a brief response advising people to keep checking the system for updates.
"Claimants should regularly check their Payment Summary and Payment History in the CONNECT system. Payments are generally deposited into the designated bank account within a few business days from the payment process date. We also recommend claimants check their CONNECT account every 48 hours for updates," said DEO spokesman Trip Farmer.