The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO), which handles Florida’s much-maligned unemployment system, is seeking $5 million to hire 108 new employees next fiscal year.
New FDEO Executive Director Dane Eagle also is calling on lawmakers to consider raising the $275 weekly max unemployment benefit, overhaul or ditch the CONNECT system and hold hearings to understand why it failed when needed most.
Gov. Ron DeSantis authorized a state inspector general in May to investigate why Florida spent $77 million for the CONNECT unemployment website built by Deloitte in 2013 that collapsed “right off the bat” in March, when the unemployment rate tripled to 12.9% and left hundreds of thousands of suddenly jobless Floridians waiting weeks for their first checks.
DeSantis wanted to know how Deloitte’s 2011 contract for $40 million was amended 17 times, why it was nearly discontinued in 2012 and why the website cost $77 million to launch in 2013.
Florida taxpayers have spent more than $100 million since March to upgrade the system by purchasing 72 servers, reassigning 2,000 state workers, contracting 330 phone center workers and tapping Florida Department of Management Services Secretary Jon Satter to manage it.
Eagle said legislative hearings will help clarify whether the system can be adequately improved and moved into a cloud server or whether it would be better to build a new system that will cost tens of millions of dollars.
The 108 new hires in the FDEO’s budget request would allow it to stop paying third-party call centers and fill a labor shortage the agency still struggles with, Eagle told News 6 Orlando last week.
“We tell (new unemployment applicants’) four to six weeks” to receive first checks, Eagle said. “Because of the workload and not having enough staff, it does take longer.”
While the emphasis on the unemployment system is welcome, Democrats maintain changes in 2011 orchestrated by former governor and now U.S. Sen. Rick Scott made it more difficult to apply for unemployment and trimmed eligibility to a national-low 12 weeks are the system’s biggest problems, not failed technology.
A 2021 bill drafted by Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, whose reelection bid is locked in a recount, and Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, nearly would double Florida’s weekly $275 maximum benefit and its eligibility time span.
Under the draft proposal, maximum weekly benefits would increase to $500 per week, the number of weeks eligible would extended from 12 to 26 and, for the first time, self-employed workers would be eligible for state benefits.
The measure would allow Floridians to receive benefits from the day they lost their job rather than the day they applied for benefits, and it would require the FDEO to determine applicants’ eligibility within three weeks, noting many Floridians often have waited three months or longer before receiving the benefit.
The bill also would:
• Create a reemployment assistance ombudsman office to review the unemployment assistance process each year;
• Require the FDEO to provide at least two additional ways for residents to apply for assistance on top of the online application at floridajobs.org;
• Make it so applicants can’t be denied for leaving a job because of an illness or disability, caring for sick family members, having to relocate because their spouse got a new job and their employer moving somewhere that would require them to commute an hour or more. Domestic violence victims also could not be denied;
• Mandate the FDEO to adopt a “set of workplace safety rules” with help from the Florida Department of Health and make it so individuals can’t be denied for turning down unsafe work.
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.