Florida's poor treatment of the unemployed deplorable

February 12, 2014 

The state of Florida has performed poorly in dealing with the difficult impacts of the Great Recession on thousands of residents tossed into the unemployment ranks through layoffs.

The state's new online unemployment benefits site has been a disaster, failing to deliver jobless benefits for weeks and even months. The October launch of the $63 million CONNECT computer system went awry, riddled with technical glitches that stymied registration.

Yet state officials did nothing to help the thousands of jobless Floridians who could not file claims via CONNECT, instead halting payments because eligibility couldn't be verified.

The federal government had to step in and provide permission for the state to restart issuing checks without eligibility confirmation, this occurring just late last month. California encountered a similar eligibility problem months ago but forged ahead without such federal approval, so why did Florida wait and wait while the unemployed went without benefits for so long?

Instead of helping the down and out, state's Department of Economic Opportunity wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on employee overtime and new hires to review and verify claims that eventually were paid anyway with federal intervention.

The Sunshine State's current lack of compassion for the jobless can be traced back to a 2011 law that erected barriers to benefits. Claims can only be filed online. Understandably, the unemployed are required to seek work, but filing proof of five job applications every week is the highest in the nation.

The law also requires applicants to complete a 45-minute skills test and slashed the number of weeks people can obtain benefits, linking the number to the state's unemployment rate. Currently, that stands at 16 weeks of benefits -- far less than previous state policy.

It's apparent that CONNECT was not bug proof from the beginning but DEO has failed to explain why contingency plans were not in place. The state blames the contractor, Deloitte Consulting, without accepting any responsibility.

That failure of leadership has been evident in the Department of Economic Opportunity from its creation in 2011 under Gov. Rick Scott. Ostensibly designed to streamline government, the agency has been plagued by allegations of waste. The internal turmoil is plainly evident by the fact DOE has gone through five executive directors in a few short years.

Under all these circumstances, how can Floridians be confident that this government agency is working efficiently and smoothly -- as promised? While jobless benefits are flowing again, the system remains a work in progress, one that deserves tighter scrutiny from the Legislature.

The business community benefits from lower unemployment taxes thanks to state policy changes, an inarguable and welcome boost to the economy. But Florida should be treating the unemployed like human beings and not liabilities.

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