TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Thousands of unemployed Floridians whose benefit checks have been held up by the state's troubled new system will soon get their payments.
State officials announced Saturday that the U.S. Department of Labor has given the state permission to pay any jobless claims that have been delayed for more than seven days.
"This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system," said Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity in a statement.
Federal officials came to Florida this week after urging from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who was in Miami on Thursday, said his goal was to "implement a payfirst, figure-it-out-later system."
Nelson, in a statement, said he was glad to hear the decision to pay benefits instead of waiting to fix ongoing computer problems.
"As the Labor Secretary promised me, he'd send his folks to Florida and fix the mess the state has made of the unemployment benefits system," Nelson said.
There are roughly 240,000 people in Florida receiving unemployment benefits that are usually claimed every two weeks. The maximum payment is $275 a week. The new system is crucial to those seeking unemployment checks because since 2011 the state has required that people file for unemployment online.
But there have been recurring problems with people seeking benefits since the state installed a new $63 million system in October.
One of the key problems has been at least a 25 percent rise in the number of disputed claims since the state switched over to the Connect system.
These are claims that are flagged for various reasons such as an employer disputing that a former employee is eligible for unemployment benefits. For someone to remain eligible after filing an initial claim they must certify they are still unemployed, they are able and available for work, and they are actively seeking work.
Panuccio said this week that the number of disputed claims was as high as 60,000, and it could have been even higher in the last few weeks. The state has hired extra people to help resolve the disputed claims. A spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity did not have a figure on Saturday on how many of the disputed claims were older than seven days.
State officials said that employers who pay unemployment taxes will not be held responsible for any overpayments to former employees if the employer has met its obligations. The Department of Economic Opportunity said that if it determined later that someone was ineligible that person will be responsible for reimbursing the state.
Because of ongoing problems with the Connect system Florida has withheld a $3 million payment to the company that built the website. State officials have also been assessing a daily fine of $15,000 against Deloitte Consulting since late December. They have vowed to keep fining Deloitte until the system is "fully functional."
Additionally the state has hired a second vendor to help with the troubled system and has planned to hire hundreds of temporary employees between now and March to help resolve problems.
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