Florida to Cut Unemployment Checks Delayed by Plagued Website

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson summoned federal labor officials to Tallahassee last week to help straighten out delays in unemployment claims processing.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida Flickr/NASA/Paul E. Alers

Florida officials announced Saturday they will pay thousands of unemployed workers throughout the state who have had their benefits delayed more than seven days because of technical glitches plaguing a new government website.

“This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system,” said Jesse Panuccio, who oversees the CONNECT website as executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. “Some claimants have suffered and the DEO and the U.S. Department of Labor are committed to helping them through all legal and available means.”

The announcement came after federal labor officials arrived in Tallahassee on Friday at the behest of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Alarmed by reports of growing desperation among unpaid claimants, Nelson requested they investigate Florida’s oversight of an unemployment benefits system that serves about 235,000 claimants. Since the mid-October launch of the new $63 million website that processes the claims, thousands of payments have been held up by technical malfunctions.

On Saturday, federal officials gave the DEO authority to pay those claims, which max out at $275 a week, that have been delayed longer than a week. These are claims that are being reviewed because of questions of a claimant’s eligibility, a caseload that had grown by 25 percent since the launch of CONNECT.

Panuccio said the emergency payments would be temporary and reviewed later to make sure they were sent to the appropriate recipients.

“Should it later be determined that a claimant was not in fact eligible for benefits, the claimant will be responsible for reimbursing the state,” Panuccio said.

That could prove to be a headache, as well as resolving what to do with the project vendor, Deloitte Consulting. Since Dec. 20, DEO has been fining the company $15,000 a day and withholding more than $3 million until it fixes the problems. Another company, Capgemini, was hired to consult on the project.

But for claimants like Oldsmar resident Janet Gurney, Saturday’s announcement was welcome news. Since she had been laid off from Dunkin’ Donuts on Dec. 10, Gurney has tried and failed to get payments from the CONNECT website.

“I don’t have an income, so I’m barely getting by,” Gurney said. “Maybe now I could get some grocery shopping done, pay down some bills and get an oil change. It’d be great.”

©2014 The Miami Herald