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Florida Now Faces Consequences of Ignored Website Problems

Auditors had been reporting major problems with the state’s unemployment website since 2015 but only now, when thousands are suddenly unemployed due to the coronavirus, are officials paying attention.

(TNS) — State auditors warned Gov. Ron DeSantis last year that Florida’s unemployment website was still suffering major problems, including glitches, error messages and other problems that thousands of Floridians are now experiencing.

In a damning 2019 report, auditors found that they had flagged all of the problems with the website in previous audits going back to 2015 — yet state officials had not made a serious attempt to fix them.

The consequences for delaying the fixes will be severe. The unreliable system is failing under an unprecedented crush of unemployment claims because of the coronavirus, and many Floridians are unable to apply because the site keeps crashing.

If Florida can’t get its website fixed, the hundreds of thousands of Floridians thrown out of work could, at the least, be forced to wait weeks for unemployment relief because they’re unable to apply for them on Florida’s website.

At the worst, they could lose out on federal unemployment benefits included in Congress’ recent stimulus package.

“This is absolutely shocking,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said of the audit. “The Republican Party of Florida and Republican leadership who crafted this website deserve all the shame right now and should be held responsible for fixing it immediately.”

The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. The federal stimulus package includes unemployment benefits for people who work in the so-called gig economy, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, and people who are employed part-time or are self-employed.

That segment of the workforce is not covered by Florida’s stingy unemployment rules. But to receive the federal aid, those workers must apply through Florida’s website, adding an additional burden to a system that regularly malfunctions.

The cost for the mismanagement could be millions, or billions, of untapped aid that won’t make it to Floridians, said Sen. Joe Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami.

“We’re literally carting off money from D.C. to some other state because we can’t get it out to people,” Rodridguez said Tuesday.

It’s unclear whether the problems auditors flagged last year still exist and are causing headaches for the thousands of Floridians who are trying, and failing, to apply for unemployment benefits.

Neither DeSantis’ administration nor the Department of Economic Opportunity, which he oversees and which operates the state’s unemployment website, responded to questions about which of the 17 findings in last year’s report had been fixed since DeSantis took office in January 2019.

Most of the responsibility lies with former Gov. Rick Scott, whose administration launched the new website, CONNECT, seven years ago. When asked why Scott, now a U.S. senator, failed to fix the problems flagged repeatedly by auditors during his tenure, spokeswoman Sarah Schwirian did not say.

“As governor, he made investments to ensure the system worked and Florida’s Unemployment Insurance program is funded at record levels thanks to reforms under Gov. Scott, meaning more Florida families can receive the help they need,” Schwirian said in a statement.

The Department of Economic Opportunity has blamed the website’s problems on a historic workload caused by the coronavirus. In the third week of March, more than 74,000 Floridians filed for unemployment, nearly double the previous weekly record. That’s almost certainly an undercount, because many Floridians have been unable to apply because of the website’s problems.

To handle the workload, the Department of Economic Opportunity has hired more call takers and added additional servers. The problems are not unique to Florida — other state unemployment systems are also crashing under historic workloads.

But as auditors made clear last year, state officials failed to fix fundamental problems with the site dating back to its launch in October 2013, when Florida’s unemployment rate was falling.

Building a new unemployment site was one of Scott’s top priorities, and the contract to build it was awarded to Deloitte Consulting, a major contractor whose high-powered lobbyists at the time included Brian Ballard, the co-chair of Scott’s inaugural finance committee.

Deloitte had problems from the start. Two years before the site launched, the Department of Economic Opportunity was warning the project wasn’t working right and and had fallen behind schedule. Department officials were threatening to fine Deloitte $15,000 per day until it revised its final design. At one point they threatened to fire the company.

When the site launched, website glitches locked thousands of recipients out of the system and delayed their payments by weeks.

The site, in violation of state law, required applicants to sign in with their Social Security numbers, and the site had so many problems that people found their claims denied or were paid claims when they weren’t qualified for.

To add insult to injury, the site cost taxpayers $77 million, $14 million more than originally estimated.

State auditors detailed those problems in a 2015 audit. An audit in 2016 found the state failed to fix many of the problems they had flagged.

Last year’s audit was essentially a repeat of 2016's audit, since nothing had been fixed.

“The results of our follow-up procedures disclosed that many of the findings in our report [from 2016] were not corrected,” auditors wrote.

In between those audits, the state did create a process to record system failures — it had more than 600 outstanding issues in 2019, auditors noted. But the state had no process to analyze those errors to see how frequently they occurred or how many people were affected by them.

“The Department lacked a proactive approach to identify and analyze [the website’s] technical system errors and other [website] defects that may prevent or hinder the processing of [website] data,” auditors wrote.

Auditors found the website’s automated functions still entered wrong data, such as inaccurate postmarks on documents, which could erroneously negate someone’s claim.

While the state no longer required people applying for unemployment to use Social Security numbers to log in, the site was still letting people use them. To prevent fraud and to preserve privacy, state law makes it illegal for state agencies to collect someone’s Social Security number, and auditors wrote that allowing its use also goes against the advice of the Social Security Administration.

The site also wasn’t requiring applicants to use stronger eight-digit passwords. Instead, it let them them use four-digit PIN numbers.

Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Ken Lawson offered no substantive responses to any of the 17 problems flagged by the audit, writing that the department would “continue” working on them and was prioritizing fixing two of the items in 2019.

Eskamani said she’s received scores of emails from people who haven’t been able to apply using the state’s website. While she was being interviewed for this story, she received another email from a constituent asking for help.

Rodriguez said the excuse that the state is simply overwhelmed by the workload isn’t legitimate.

“The system wasn’t working before the crisis, so the excuse that they’ve been overwhelmed with demand is absolutely part of the picture, but it’s definitely not the full picture,” he said.

Florida’s unemployment payouts, which max out at $275 per week, are some of the lowest in the country, and he said he wonders whether the failure to fix the problems are intentional.

“Because we’re the state that is the most Scrooge-like in unemployment assistance, it almost makes you wonder if these application failures and having to run the gauntlet in a system that was designed to fail was intentional,” he said.

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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