Florida lawmakers want to overhaul unemployment system after disastrous year

click to enlarge Florida lawmakers want to overhaul unemployment system after disastrous year
Screenshot via Florida DEO

A move has begun to revamp Florida’s less-than-decade-old online unemployment system, which couldn’t handle the influx of claims as businesses shut down last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee on Monday approved a measure (SB 1948) tied to a request by Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle for more than $73 million over the next two years to overhaul the CONNECT unemployment system.

“Perhaps the most frustrating thing for those (unemployed) individuals was just not knowing, couldn’t log on, didn't know if their request was even being heard,” bill sponsor Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said.

Bean’s proposal doesn’t say how much money would go to system changes this year, leaving that up to the legislative budget process. The proposal also initially called for a “cloud-based system” to replace the CONNECT system, as Eagle has recommended. But an amendment approved Monday would let state Chief Information Officer James Grant, the Department of Revenue and the Department of Financial Services review any newly proposed system.

“We think the cloud system is the best way to go, because it doesn't have that piecemeal patchwork Band-Aid approach that we've seen before,” Bean said. “We will intend to go forward, consult with all of the smart people that will work it together, and live within our budget as prescribed by the budget process coming out in the next few weeks.”

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, expressed concern about removing the language for a “cloud-based system.

“I understand, I heard something that it'll be in the general appropriations language and all that stuff, but I don't want to get to a Pelosi situation where we have to pass something to know what's in it,” Pizzo said, referring to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Along with requiring that a new system be put in place, the wide-ranging proposal would create the Office of Economic Accountability and Transparency, which would be responsible for making future upgrades to the system. The office would be created within the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The proposal doesn’t address the amount or weeks of benefits out-of-work Floridian can receive. Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat who has sponsored legislation (SB 592) to increase weekly benefits to a maximum of $500, said Bean’s proposal will be a “step in the right direction” if the changes increase the speed in which claims are processed.

“It will be better for not just us here, but everybody in the state of Florida,” Powell said. “Sen. Pizzo’s office, of course, as well as mine and a number of other elected (officials) were overwhelmed with the constant plight of those who had been unable to access benefits during the early and mid-parts of this pandemic.”

Bean’s bill also would reduce from 20 to 14 days the time employers must respond to notices of claims and change part of state law that has prevented domestic violence victims from being eligible for claims.

Also, Eagle’s title would be changed to “Secretary of Economic Opportunity” and he would be given seats on the board of directors of CareerSource Florida, which provides oversight of workforce-development programs, and Enterprise Florida, the state’s business-recruitment arm.

Long-time social services lobbyist Karen Woodall said increasing weekly unemployment benefits, from the current $275 a week, and increasing the number of weeks, from 19, is just as important as revamping the system.

“Modernizing is not just about the computer and the process, it’s critical, it's a critical point. But modernizing the underlying policy is also critical,” Woodall, who is with the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, said. “And our frustration is that the conversation so far on the unemployment issue has all been about the computer and the process.”

CONNECT went live in 2013 at a cost that eventually reached $81 million. State Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel, in a draft report released March 4, found that the system was never tested to meet the demands encountered during the pandemic, and more than a dozen issues remained outstanding years after the system went live.

Miguel told lawmakers Wednesday that when the contract for CONNECT was approved, state officials “thought they were buying an off-the-shelf, mature, robust system, and instead they were buying a project that was under development.” Gov. Ron DeSantis called the system, among other things, a “jalopy” after it repeatedly crashed last year when hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims were filed as businesses shut down.

Eagle said Monday a goal of the change is to craft a system that can be updated annually, noting the modernization of the unemployment system “froze” after being set up in 2013. Eagle said this month that retaining CONNECT is “not an option.” “What I'm proposing is a new system, but it is using pieces that we have,” Eagle told the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee during a confirmation hearing Wednesday.

“There is some value to some of the coding, some of the mainframes, the infrastructure. But once we are finished with at least the proposal that we put in place, this will be a new car.” Eagle’s request for funding calls for $32.9 million during the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which will begin July 1, and $40.4 million the following fiscal year, according to a report released by the department late Friday.

More than 60 percent of the work would involve human resources, 27 percent for software and 12 percent for hardware. Additional base budget and maintenance costs wouldn’t be reviewed until the COVID-19 crisis is considered contained, which might take until the middle of 2023.

The state spent $49 million last year as the department scrambled to make emergency improvements to the system and hired hundreds of people to field questions about claims. The system was budgeted at $12 million a year. An identical bill (HB 1463), sponsored by Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, awaits an appearance before the House Tourism, Infrastructure & Energy Subcommittee.

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