TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The federal government will allow the state to pay unemployment claims in cases that have been in dispute for more than a week, as officials look to ease a backlog created by Florida's new but trouble-plagued $63 million unemployment assistance website.
However, those who receive payments while their cases remain in dispute could have to repay the money if they are later found to have been ineligible.
Also, as part of the agreement to distribute funds, employers who pay unemployment-assistance taxes won't be held responsible for what could result in overpayments to people.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor are in Tallahassee at the request of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to review the state Department of Economic Opportunity's new Connect website.
On Saturday, the Department of Economic Opportunity announced the state agency has been given federal approval to temporarily issue benefit payments to people whose continuing claims have been held up for "adjudication" 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," Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Jesse Panuccio said in a prepared statement. "Some claimants have suffered and DEO and USDOL are committed to helping them through all legal and available means."
Minnesota-based Deloitte Consulting, which has a contract to set up the website, will oversee the payments, the state agency said in a news release.
Last Wednesday, Panuccio --- during an appearance before the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee --- placed the majority of the system's troubles at the hands of Deloitte.
The state has been imposing fines of $15,000 per business day against Deloitte since Dec. 23 and has withheld a $3 million payment to the company for failing to deliver a "fully functioning" system.
Deloitte --- which has faced questions over the rollout of multimillion-dollar websites in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California --- has said the company completed the work outlined in its Department of Economic Opportunity contract and that the Connect system "has surpassed the performance of the unsustainable systems it replaced."
Connect has been in the works since 2009 to replace a 30-year-old system jobless Floridians used to claim their weekly benefits, monitor accounts and request information. The department provides up to $275 weekly to more than 200,000 Floridians.
Panuccio estimated last Wednesday that up to 60,000 cases have been flagged for review, up from about 48,000 when Connect went live on Oct. 15.
The claims in question are those of individuals who have previously been approved for unemployment checks, but were flagged by the online system for adjudication after further claims for relief were submitted.
To remain eligible, claimants must show every two weeks they are actively seeking work and how they have been unable to find new employment.