TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's failed unemployment system took center stage one year ago when hundreds of thousands of Floridians flooded the website at the start of the pandemic.
Stories of people waiting 20 hours on the phone, furloughed workers giving up and getting in free food lines became the norm.
One year later, there are still problems.
Earlier this month, we finally got some answers as to why and how this happened.
On March 4, Florida's Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel released the preliminary findings of a long-term investigation into why the $81 million unemployment system, known as CONNECT, failed.
The report says the CONNECT system, which was set up under former Gov. Rick Scott and became operational in 2013, was never fully tested.
The state contract required the CONNECT system to be able to support at least 200,000 concurrent external customers when it was initially deployed, according to the report. But, the inspector general found it was only tested with 4,200 concurrent users.
The inspector general's report makes recommendations so something like this doesn't happen in the future, such as tighter contract language and enhanced technology.
Ultimately, it's up to the state legislature to make those changes.
In the Spring and Summer of 2020, state representatives vowed to make things right, but three weeks into the legislative session, we still have no idea what this reform will really look like.
According to Representative Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), there's tension between the right and the left when it comes to overhauling the system. Generally speaking, Republicans are in favor of technological advances while Democrats are also proposing increasing the number of weekly benefits and extending the length of time someone is eligible to receive unemployment payments.
Here are four big changes currently being tossed around in Tallahassee:
Right now the maximum weekly unemployment payment someone can receive in the state of Florida is $275, well below the national average. Eskamani and Rep. Ben Diamond (D-St. Petersburg) proposed a bill that would increase that amount and expand the duration of those benefits.
Earlier this month, Diamond told 10 Tampa Bay, "We’re trying to fix legislation to make our unemployment system more helpful to people who lose their job through no fault of their own."
GET RID OF THE RED TAPE
The pandemic exposed the extreme hoops one has to go through to achieve unemployment eligibility in the state of Florida. Eskamani's bill would eliminate some of that by decreasing the work search requirement to three jobs instead of five.
"Applying for five jobs can be really difficult, especially when you’re in an economic downturn like what we’ve experienced this past year," said Eskamani.
Governor DeSantis ended up waiving much of the unemployment requirements during the pandemic, but House Bill 207 would automatically waive the work search requirement during states of emergency.
Two Republican lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 1948, which would require the Department of Economic Opportunity to use a cloud-based system rather than an internet-based system, which would make for faster speeds and a more efficient experience for concurrent users.
The Chief Inspector General's report recommended ensuring more accountability from contractors by including financial penalties in contracts for companies that don't comply with the provisions of their agreements with the state.
House Bill 207 calls for an "Ombudsman Office" within the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to make sure they're responding to claims in a timely fashion.
In 2020, journalists questioned Governor Ron DeSantis at news conference after news conference about the unemployment system. Many reporters and state lawmakers took names and claimant ID's to the Department of Economic Opportunity trying to find resolutions for desperate Floridians.
Adding a separate watchdog arm of the department would give claimants a place to report issues.
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