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Florida Lawmakers Weigh Changes To State Unemployment Systems, Benefits; Deloitte Stands By CONNECT

A store announces its looming closure in Salt Lake City on Aug. 30, 2020. An economic recovery is starting to show signs of losing momentum as businesses close and companies announce big layoffs.
A store announces its looming closure in Salt Lake City on Aug. 30, 2020. An economic recovery is starting to show signs of losing momentum as businesses close and companies announce big layoffs.

Florida’s CONNECT unemployment benefits system failed to connect to much of anything in the early days of the pandemic, leaving millions of recently laid-off Floridians in the cold. The company that built it, Deloitte, has worked to distance itself from the system and is a defendant in a lawsuit against the state. Now, a new state audit reveals the problems go deeper than previously thought and lawmakers are weighing how to fix the system.

In testimony Monday in the legislature's joint Pandemic Response Committee, representatives of Deloitte— the company that built the state’s flawed unemployment benefits system—say they did what they were asked by the state and don’t know what happened to the system after they handed it off. The last time Deloitte had a hand in the Connect system was in 2015. Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo says lawmakers may never know what happened to cause the failures seen early in the pandemic.

“You haven’t touched this in six years," he said to the company's officials, "But I can’t blame you…The site you delivered? It wasn’t that great, it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t battle-tested... But I do think you got away with launching something that wasn’t ready.”

Florida spent $78 million to modernize CONNECT in 2013. It was plagued by cost overruns and delays. What did the state get for it? According to preliminary findings by the state auditor general, a whole lot of nothing. The report’s findings show the Connect system was never properly tested to see whether it could handle more than about 2,000 claims.

"It’s like buying an iPhone in 2013 and never updating the ios program or bothering to buy a new iPhone in the process," Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Dane Eagle recently told a legislative panel.

Eagle told lawmakers the cost to scrap CONNECT and rebuild it would cost more than $70 over two years.

“I liken this to taking the system we had, taking parts that worked, trashing the rest…and come up with something completely new. I liken this to what Space X has done with its shuttle program…they use pieces from the former shuttle program. So we would be using a completely new system, but recycling pieces from the past," he said.

During the hearing Democrats asked whether expanding who qualifies for unemployment is part of considerations. Eagle said no.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls has suggested the Connect benefits system isn’t the only thing lawmakers need to be looking at. He’s called for a deep dive into the local workforce agencies that are supposed to be helping people find new jobs, and the OTHER state website, Employee Florida—which is supposed to be doing the same. Speaking to reporters in February Sprowls questioned why CONNECT can’t connect to Employ Florida?

“I think we need to look at how we do this… You know, if you’re going to apply for unemployment you go to one website. If you want to look for a job navigated by the state, you go to another site. Why are we making it so difficult?” he asked.

Also talking unemployment is Senate President Wilton Simpson, who has an eye toward raising the state’s unemployment benefit. Currently, it sits at $275 a week for 12 weeks. That’s among the lowest of any state.

"I’m willing to embrace an increase," Simpson told reporters on the first day of the legislative session. "When you think about a $15/hr. minimum wage at 40 hours, that’s a $600/week gross pay. I think that, in that format, we need to take a serious look at bringing that $275 up to something higher than that.”

He didn’t name a price. Democrats recently floated raising the benefit to $500 dollars a week. But Sprowls believes that shouldn’t be part of considerations for now. Businesses pay unemployment taxes, he says, and raising those benefits could mean raising costs for businesses that are still trying to recover from the pandemic.

“You can want the businesses not to be taxed out of business, especially when they’re in bad shape. You can also want to make sure people can feed their families…when they’re unemployed. It’s not that those things are mutually exclusive. But it’s a balancing act that we constantly have to engage in to make sure we have the job creators…are able to do what we hope they’ll do which is continue to prosper and create jobs.”

Florida’s CONNECT unemployment site was built during former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and Gov. Ron DeSantis believes it was designed to fail—an effort to dissuade people from trying to gain benefits. He’s called the system a “jalopy”.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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