Feds head to Florida to help with glitchy unemployment website

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJanuary 15, 2014 

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson announced Tuesday night that federal labor officials told him they will be in Tallahassee by week’s end to “help fix” the state’s troubled unemployment benefits website, CONNECT.

Nelson spoke by phone late Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to discuss CONNECT, the state’s $63 million website that has been plagued with technical difficulties since its mid-October debut.

“The secretary of labor has assured me his key staff that handle unemployment insurance will be in Tallahassee by the end of the week,” Nelson said in a statement. “And they’ll stay there until the problems are fixed.”

Nelson asked Perez last week to investigate the Florida Department of Economic Development’s launch of the website, a renewal of a request he first made in late October. Nelson made the request after continued media reports of thousands getting their claims denied because of glitches. The non-profit National Employment Law Project estimated unemployed Floridians may have been denied more than $22 million in benefits in October and November after CONNECT launched.

The announcement of possible federal intervention comes the day before Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the DEO, answers questions by a Florida senate appropriations committee that oversees spending on CONNECT.

Frustrated by continued problems with the site, state lawmakers are considering options as well, including overturning a 2011 law that requires recipients to file for benefits online. That requirement was flagged as violating the civil rights of those without access to a computer by the Department of Labor last year.

It’s unclear what federal officials will do upon arrival, but Nelson said that Perez told him they’ll be focused on getting benefits paid immediately while fixing the system later. Nelson said Perez may produce a progress report by next week.

Here’s the release:

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Federal labor officials intend to head to Florida by the end of this week to help fix continuing problems plaguing Florida’s new unemployment benefits system.

“The secretary of labor has assured me his key staff that handle unemployment insurance will be in Tallahassee by the end of the week; and, they'll stay there until the problems are fixed,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a statement tonight in response to a number of media inquiries.

Nelson sought more direct intervention by federal authorities in the wake of media reports that thousands of Floridians have been unable to collect unemployment benefits they are due since the launch of the state’s new multi-million dollar website in mid-October.

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 of last year while the problems continue.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez spoke with Nelson this evening, as a follow-up to the lawmaker's recent written request for federal action. Perez conveyed that the initial purpose of his team’s trip will be to try to institute a way to pay those with continuing claims now and fix problems with the Florida system later, Nelson said.

People who have continuing claims have already been deemed eligible to receive initial unemployment benefits, but for some their benefits have reportedly been delayed or interrupted when issues with the state's new website made it impossible for them to meet their continuing requirements by showing they are available for work, actively seeking work, and have not turned down any suitable work offers.

Nelson said he believes Perez will have a progress report perhaps as early as next week.

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