BY ASHLEY D. THOMAS
Thousands of unemployed Floridians dealing with the state’s unusable $63 million Connect unemployment website soon may see some relief.
Florida officials announced 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.
Emmanuel Garcia, a Daytona Beach resident is among the growing number of Volusians who have been unable to process unemployment claims because the website has had these glitches since October.
“I’ve paid into this system for years and now when I need help, the system isn’t there,” Garcia remarked.
‘Hit or miss’
It’s a familiar lament heard by Andre Anderson, Department of Economic Opportunity supervisor at the Center for Business Excellence in Daytona Beach.
“Unfortunately with that website we hear it everyday – that people are having problems accessing their claims,’’ he shared.
The office Anderson works for – more commonly referred to as the One-Stop Employment Center – provides assistance in job search, including job referrals, counseling, and other types of supportive services as well as serves as a location to make unemployment claims.
“Some of them are able to claim their weeks like they are supposed to. A lot of the others are waiting on adjudication.”
He noted, “It has been an issue for a lot of people, but then some are having no problem with the site and it works perfectly like it was designed. It has been hit or miss.”
However, the frustration with the website has been a nightmare. People who have continuing claims already have been deemed eligible to receive initial unemployment benefits. But for some, their benefits have reportedly been delayed or interrupted when issues with the website made it impossible for them to meet their continuing requirements. Those residents were not able to report that they were available for work or that they were actively seeking work.
Feds stepping in
Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor headed to Tallahassee at the request of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to review the website in the wake of reports of the many failures.
Nelson sought more direct intervention by federal authorities and issued a statement saying that he had spoken with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez about the malfunctioning website.
Perez conveyed that the initial purpose of his team’s trip would be to try to institute a way to pay those with continuing claims now and fix problems with the Florida system later, Nelson said.
On Saturday, the Department of Economic Opportunity announced the state agency has been given federal approval to temporarily issue benefit payments to people whose continuing claims have been held up for “adjudication” for more than seven days.
“This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system,” Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Jesse Panuccio said in a prepared statement. “Some claimants have suffered and DEO and USDOL (United States Department of Labor) are committed to helping them through all legal and available means.”
According to one recent study done by the National Employment Law Project, unemployed Floridians may have been denied more than $22 million in benefits in October and November because of the website’s problems, Nelson said.
System needs revamp
Under revised procedures introduced in 2011, Florida requires everyone who applies for unemployment benefits to do so online. Additionally a person must complete a 45-question online exam that tests reading, math and research skills before he can receive a check.
Connect has been in the works since 2009 to replace the 30-year-old system jobless Floridians used to claim their weekly benefits, monitor accounts and request information. The department provides up to $275 weekly to more than 200,000 Floridians.
Nelson said he believes Perez will have a progress report perhaps as early as next week.
Anderson explained that more people have come into the office overall since he began with Daytona Beach’s Center for Business Excellence in 2009.
“From 2009 to the present, we have seen an uptick on the number of claims being made with last year probably being the highest. Overall, we seem to see less traffic than we have in times past,” Anderson explained. “Based on that, it would be that either you have less people filing or claiming their weeks for unemployment or you have more people that are employed. It’s a combination of both.”