Frustrated by problems plaguing Florida's $63 million unemployment website, state lawmakers this week said they are set to take action to rescue a system that many claimants can no longer depend on for money to pay rent, food and bills.
Possible legislative remedies include overturning a controversial 2011 law that requires unemployed people to apply online for benefits. The law was flagged last year by the U.S. Department of Labor for making it more difficult for those without computer access. October's troubled launch of CONNECT has made the law even more problematic.
"We made the rules that you have to do it online," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who chairs an appropriations committee that oversees CONNECT. "Now that's not working right and people don't have a viable Plan B. We have to come up with a solution. And that might be giving people a chance to file some other way, even if it includes paper."
Next week, lawmakers will shine the spotlight on the agency that oversees the website, the Department of Economic Opportunity. Executive director Jesse Panuccio will testify before the Senate's transportation, tourism and economic development appropriations committee on Wednesday.
"This has been talked about quite a bit and board members want to know what's going on," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
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CONNECT replaced a payment system for about 235,000 claimants that was more than 30 years old and in disrepair. The new website was intended to improve service, but glitches since its mid October launch have prevented thousands from collecting weekly benefits. As the problems persist, lawmakers catch flak from constituents.
"We've been inundated," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. "It's almost to the point where if they fix this, our constituent services would be out of business. I've never seen anything like this."
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said the number of constituents calling his office has dipped in recent weeks, but that he's still getting a steady number from people whose circumstances are growing ever more dire.
"The worst thing the state can do is create a problem for our constituents," Simpson said. "We're going to stay involved until we're not getting calls."
State lawmakers aren't alone. On Tuesday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson renewed his call for a federal investigation.
With political pressure mounting, the DEO is making a flurry of personnel moves. Earlier this month, Panuccio announced he was hiring more than 250 staffers to help process claims for jobless benefits and another 80 to handle the crush of phone calls. A day after Nelson called for the federal investigation, Panuccio disclosed he was hiring a second company, Capgemini, to help fix the technical issues.
The moves are so sudden that the DEO doesn't have space for the new hires and needs to lease more offices. Hours before Panuccio announced he was hiring Capgemini, the DEO held a public meeting that was supposed to provide a complete update on the project -- but somehow never mentioned that a new company would be hired. A further complication is that the project's initial vendor, Deloitte Consulting, is still working on it.
For most of the crisis, Gov. Rick Scott has been publicly silent. Asked this week in Brandon to set a date of when he expects the website to be fixed, Scott replied: "Oh gosh, we work on it every day. And try to improve it every day.
In November, Panuccio assured lawmakers that problems with the website were overblown and mostly resolved. Meanwhile, lawmakers struggled to get his office to respond to concerns, sometimes waiting up to a month for answers.
On Dec. 20, the DEO withheld a $3 million payment to Deloitte and began fining the company $15,000 a day. According to the state, there were 53 technical issues afflicting the CONNECT site at the time. As of Jan. 2, 49 of those issues remained unfixed, with another five new ones.
Patience with DEO and Deloitte is wearing thin.
"It was constant assurances from them that it was getting better, and, for some reason, we trusted them," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "Now we see, months later, the problems aren't fixed. We need to do something."
Lawmakers have the power of the purse, which Smith said could be useful.
Since the debut of the website, costs have risen: $1.1 million on overtime, $500,000 more than the equivalent time period before the debut. To pay for the extra staff, it will cost $164,700 a week. DEO hasn't disclosed how much Capgemini will cost.
Ring, who chairs the government operations committee, said he will wait to hold accountability hearings.
"I don't want to pull anyone off the project to prepare for the hearings," he said. "But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we won't get to the bottom of this. We will."
Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this story.
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