Sun Sentinel: Lawmakers seek independent federal probe of Florida’s problem-plagued unemployment benefits system

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Washington, May 15, 2020 | comments
A group of Florida members of Congress is seeking an independent, federal examination of the mess surrounding the state’s unemployment claims system, which has been overwhelmed for weeks by the tens of thousands of people thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic.
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A group of Florida members of Congress is seeking an independent, federal examination of the mess surrounding the state’s unemployment claims system, which has been overwhelmed for weeks by the tens of thousands of people thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter they’re sending Friday, the 13 Democrats in Florida’s congressional delegation are seeking a Government Accountability Office review of what went wrong and what reforms are necessary to fix the system.

Unemployment systems in many states were overwhelmed by the surge of claims as large swaths of the economy shut down in March and April. Florida’s system still hasn’t caught up, though Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly said the backlog is being processed and money is going out to those who are unemployed.

“Florida is a prominent example of a state that has experienced significant trouble with its unemployment programs throughout this public health emergency,” the members of Congress said in the letter, which originated with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward/Miami-Dade county Democrat. “For many Americans, any delay in the processing or receipt of benefits during unemployment can lead to financial disaster.”

They said Florida has the worst rate of paying claims in the country.

Hundreds of thousands of people unsuccessfully applied for benefits or did not get paid if they were approved. Many were stymied by technical problems and interminably busy phone lines when they sought to apply for benefits through the agency’s CONNECT online system.

Problems with the state system existed before the coronavirus-related flood of claims, the letter states, and “the pandemic exacerbated these problems and added new challenges.”

The Government Accountability Office works for Congress. GAO reviews don’t happen quickly; it can take more than a year for the agency to investigate and develop a report of its findings.

The request for the review asks the GAO to examine how the U.S. Department of Labor can improve oversight of state systems and ensure smooth processing and payments. It also seeks to identify lessons and recommendations for states to make sure they can handle large increases in demand.

They also want to know if the states’ problems are a result of the large number of coronavirus-caused claims or existed before the pandemic.

In Florida, the unemployment system was overhauled under former Gov. Rick Scott, now a member of the U.S. Senate. State and federal Democratic lawmakers have charged that Scott left behind a system that was ill-equipped to effectively process claims.

DeSantis, who inherited the system, has called the system a “jalopy” and a “clunker.” He said last week he was ordering the state’s chief inspector general to investigate the nearly $80 million system.

“All this money was spent on this system when it clearly did not have the capacity for anything above 3% to 4% unemployment, even a mild recession,” DeSantis said at a May 4 news conference in Tallahassee. “That’s not a good use of taxpayer money.”

Though both DeSantis and Scott are Republicans, they’re not political allies. All the signers of the letter to the GAO were Democrats; none of the Republicans in the Florida delegation signed it.

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @browardpolitics
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