Report details troubles of Florida’s unemployment system

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida agency that oversees unemployment benefits was besieged with bomb threats, shooting threats and coronavirus outbreaks in its offices at it tried to handle claims on a system that wasn’t built to meet demand caused by the pandemic, according to a draft report released Thursday.

The initial report of Florida's inspector general detailed enormous cost overruns when the system was developed under then-Republican Gov. Rick Scott and problems that were exposed when unemployment skyrocketed during an increase in unemployment when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a business shutdown a year ago.

As hundreds of thousand of Floridians sought unemployment compensation after losing their jobs, DeSantis called the online claim system a jalopy trying to compete in the Daytona 500 and ordered a review of why the system failed.

The draft report said the system put in place under Scott was “poorly positioned to handle the unprecedented claims volume beginning in March/April 2020.”

The report also quoted Jonathan Satter, the former Department of Management Services secretary that DeSantis brought in to help get the system functioning, as telling employees, “Many, many Callers threatening suicide, homelessness, etc.”

Satter also said that there were outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Department of Economic Opportunity offices that required employees to be sent home and offices to be cleaned before they could return to work on claims.

In May, DeSantis ordered the state inspector general to investigate the contract awarded to Deloitte in 2011 to create the unemployment filing system. Scott was governor at the time and the contract was originally worth $40 million, but the cost ballooned to nearly $78 million after 14 contract amendments.

DeSantis said at the time that the system was designed to fail. Scott, now a U.S. Senator, disputes that.

“Any insinuation that this system was not designed to help out-of-work Floridians get back on their feet and into the workforce is false and ridiculous on its face,” Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said in an email. “Then-Governor Scott took numerous actions to levy fines against and withhold payment from Deloitte to hold them accountable to the contract terms.”

Deloitte defended the system it developed, which is called CONNECT.

“We finished work on the CONNECT project nearly six years ago after the State accepted the system and we met all of our obligations. We have not worked on CONNECT since May 2015, at which time the system was performing well above the agreed-upon standard for system availability," said Deloitte managing director Jonathan Gandal in an emailed statement.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity is recommending that CONNECT be replaced with a more robust and modern system that employs cloud-based technology that could allow the system to more nimbly respond to increased demands.