TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - On the heels of a Florida inspector general’s initial report out Thursday, state lawmakers are not looking to repair the ‘glitched’ jobless benefits system, but to replace it entirely.
The review found that "CONNECT" is a broken system full of glitches, incapable of handling the surge in jobless claims caused by COVID-19 shutdowns. The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity recommends the online system be tossed out and replaced with a more robust and modern system that employs cloud-based technology that could allow the system to more nimbly respond to increased demands.
The DEO is requesting $73 million over the next two years to get the job done.
The report also detailed enormous cost overruns when the system was developed under then-Republican Gov. Rick Scott. The draft report said the system put in place under Scott was "poorly positioned to handle the unprecedented claims volume beginning in March/April 2020."
As hundreds of thousands of Floridians sought unemployment compensation after losing their jobs, Gov. Ron DeSantis called the online claim system a jalopy trying to compete in the Daytona 500 and ordered a review of why the system failed. At the peak of unemployment last April, some 1.3 million Floridians tried to access benefits through the online portal that continually crashed.
Its findings also claimed the DEO often ignored or overlooked warning signs the system couldn’t handle the effects of the layoffs. CONNECT was also never properly tested in accordance with a contract with Deloitte.
The report also quoted Jonathan Satter, the former Department of Management Services secretary that DeSantis brought in to help get the system functioning, as telling employees, "Many, many Callers threatening suicide, homelessness, etc."
Satter also said that there were outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Department of Economic Opportunity offices that required employees to be sent home and offices to be cleaned before they could return to work on claims.
In May, DeSantis ordered the state inspector general to investigate the contract awarded to Deloitte in 2011 to create the unemployment filing system. Scott was governor at the time and the contract was originally worth $40 million, but the cost ballooned to nearly $78 million after 14 contract amendments.
DeSantis said at the time that the system was designed to fail. Scott, now a U.S. Senator, disputes that.
"Any insinuation that this system was not designed to help out-of-work Floridians get back on their feet and into the workforce is false and ridiculous on its face," Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said in an email. "Then-Governor Scott took numerous actions to levy fines against and withhold payment from Deloitte to hold them accountable to the contract terms."
Deloitte defended the system it developed.
"We finished work on the CONNECT project nearly six years ago after the State accepted the system and we met all of our obligations. We have not worked on CONNECT since May 2015, at which time the system was performing well above the agreed-upon standard for system availability," said Deloitte managing director Jonathan Gandal in an emailed statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report