DeSantis takes steps to fix overwhelmed unemployment compensation system

John Kennedy
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he was taking steps to remedy the state’s failed online system for unemployment compensation, which has kept untold thousands of Floridians from applying for help after losing jobs in a paralyzed economy.

Records show 227,000 unemployment claims were filed last week in Florida, bringing the two-week total to 348,511, more than all that were approved in 2019. The Department of Economic Opportunity also received 2.1 million calls for help this week.

“This system is not handling the needs of the people of Florida in an adequate way,” DeSantis said in a Thursday afternoon briefing at the Capitol. “We need to do more.”

Application for unemployment benefits

DeSantis issued an executive order pushing other state agencies to deploy staff to help DEO field calls, allow for paper applications for benefits to be submitted and improve the online capacity of the CONNECT application filing system.

He also barred mortgage foreclosures and evictions for 45 days, prohibitions that many states, cities and counties have already enacted.

DEO’s CONNECT system has been problem-plagued since it was first launched in 2013, after Scott’s predecessor, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, pushed for an overhaul of unemployment compensation that slashed benefits and shortened the number of weeks of eligibility.

Florida’s $275-a-week maximum jobless benefit is among the lowest in the U.S. The 12-weeks unemployed Floridians can collect benefits matches North Carolina for the shortest in the country.

The changes made by Scott and the Florida Legislature saved businesses millions of tax dollars – largely by reducing the number of people who successfully applied for unemployment benefits.

Now, in the economic side of the state’s fight against the coronavirus, DeSantis said, “This is our top priority: To be able to field the calls and respond appropriately to the people of Florida.”

DEO’s executive director, Ken Lawson, in an earlier video conference with Democratic lawmakers and benefit-seekers, addressed problems with the CONNECT system. “From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” Lawson said.

Until Thursday’s move, DeSantis has only spoken about the chaos surrounding the unemployment system when prompted by reporters. And he has largely blamed any problems on the unprecedented nature of the economic shutdowns.

State auditors, though, for years found problems with the CONNECT system.

Still, state lawmakers and both the DeSantis and Scott administrations did nothing to attempt to correct these issues. Most involve technical glitches, computer crashes, a need for password resets and unresponsive phone help-lines that effectively keep people from successfully completing applications.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said Republican lawmakers and two GOP governors have “created a self-inflicted unemployment insurance crisis.”