Florida looks at spending more than $73M to fix much-criticized online unemployment system
TALLAHASSEE — More than $73 million is needed over the next two years to revamp Florida’s much-criticized unemployment system, which was overwhelmed in the initial weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the head of the state’s unemployment agency said Monday.
Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle told members of the Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response that retaining the current system is “not an option.”
The CONNECT online system, which cost $78 million to create before going live in 2013, repeatedly failed last spring as businesses shut down because of the pandemic and hundreds of thousands of Floridians quickly sought unemployment aid.
Eagle, a former legislator appointed to run the agency by Gov. Ron DeSantis in September, is focused on a multi-year project aimed at upgrading the process of making claims, expanding contact center staffing and shifting stored data to a “cloud-based” portal with a company such as Amazon or Google.
“The way I look at this is a parallel to SpaceX,” Eagle said to the lawmakers. “SpaceX is one of the leaders in space exploration and space technology. However, they use recycled parts from the old Space Shuttle program. The proposed solution moving forward is to completely modernize, make modular, and put the reemployment assistance database into the cloud, but use some recycled pieces from the past.”
With legislators facing a budget shortfall for the upcoming year and no guarantee of money from the federal government for the project, Eagle left to the Legislature questions where the money would come from and issues of weekly benefits, which at a maximum of $275 a week are among the lowest in the nation.
“We decided that the best proposals we could bring forward were those which might be less controversial, that everybody can get behind,” Eagle said after the meeting. “Obviously, there's discussions out there and many bills with committee members on rates and weeks, but we figured that was best left up to them.”
Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, proposed legislation (SB 1906) on Friday to raise maximum weekly state unemployment checks from $275 to $375.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, earlier proposed increasing the weekly total to $400 (SB 466).
State unemployment benefits typically are available for 12 weeks. But because of the pandemic pushing up the state’s unemployment rate to 8.6 percent during the third quarter of 2020, benefits will be available for 19 weeks this year.
State law holds the number of weeks at 12 when unemployment is at or below 5 percent, with an additional week added for each 0.5 percentage point above 5 percent in the third quarter of a calendar year.
The Department of Economic Opportunity is requesting the additional funding as the release of auditor-general and inspector-general reports about the unemployment system remain pending. The request calls for $32.9 million during the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which will begin July 1, and $40.4 million the following fiscal year, according to a report released by the department late Friday.
More than 60 percent of the work would involve human resources, 27 percent for software and 12 percent for hardware.
Additional base budget and maintenance costs wouldn’t be reviewed until the COVID-19 crisis is considered contained, which might take until the middle of 2023.
The state spent $49 million last year as the department scrambled to make emergency improvements to the system and hired hundreds of people to field questions about claims. The system was budgeted at $12 million a year.
The problems with CONNECT spurred a verbal battle between DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who oversaw the system’s implementation while governor.
DeSantis derided the system as a “jalopy” that was “not ready for prime time,” designed with “pointless roadblocks” to discourage people seeking jobless benefits.
In August, Scott retorted that DeSantis should “quit blaming others.”
“It’s a tough time to be governor,” Scott said in his reply. “Some people are leaders. Some people take responsibility. Some people solve problems. And some people blame others.”
The system could not handle the massive number of unemployment claims that began pouring in after the pandemic hit the state in March, peaking with more than 900,000 claims rolling in during a two-week period at the end of April.
“The CONNECT system was not designed nor developed to process the volume of claims received during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report released Friday said. “However, the department completed substantial crisis response actions to stabilize the RA (reemployment assistance) staff, the CONNECT system, and implement required Federal RA benefit programs as they were defined by the U.S. Department of Labor.”
Since mid-March 2020, the state has distributed more than $23.1 billion in state and federal unemployment relief to 2.29 million claimants.