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Florida Democrats Want Federal Auditors To Investigate State's Backlogged Unemployment System

A Hialeah police officer directs drivers lined up to obtain unemployment forms earlier this month.
Daniel A. Varela
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida Democrats want federal auditors to investigate the state’s flawed unemployment system and a backlogthey say ranks among the worst in the country.

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In a press briefing Monday, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she would ask the U.S. Government Accountability Office to open an investigation.

“This is a system that has been broken for many years, that the governor had an opportunity over the last two years to fix proactively,” she said. “Now we can see what happens when you leave something that is so wholly inadequate.”

State audits going back to 2015 repeatedly warned of flaws in the $77 million system launched by Sen. Rick Scott when he was governor. Glitches made it hard for workers to submit applications and the system itself generated errors that interfered with submissions.

In the wake of business shutdowns amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the system ranked among the most backlogged in the U.S. As of Saturday, just 25 percent of 824,279 confirmed claims had been paid.

Florida's slow effort to fix problems is partly to blame, said state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez.

“It's not just the system design,” he said. “We knew this was coming.”

Despite the audits, including one as recent as March 2019 that recounted problems, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity has failed to get the system running smoothly. Applicants say they've been kicked off repeatedly and can't get through to the agency by phone. Those who applied in March still have not received responses.

As applications mounted, Secretary Ken Lawson hired an outside call center to help process claims. Additional servers were brought in to increase capacity.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has waived certain requirements to simplify the process, including a rule that workers be actively job hunting. Frustrated by the backlog, he asked Lawson to step aside and asked Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter to begin overseeing claims related to the shutdown in mid April.

But Rodriguez complained that DeSantis has still not fulfilled a promise to make benefits retroactive.

Florida’s broken system is also preventing state workers from obtaining federal help that includes additional benefits of up to $600 a week. Independent workers, who are part of the gig economy, are also still not able to apply. The state announced weeks ago that it would provide a separate application, but Rodriguez said it was not working Monday.

“It's in the governor's lap and it's his job to get this up and running,” Wasserman-Schultz said.

Democrats also want DeSantis to use his emergency power to increase and extend benefits. Florida’s benefits are currently limited to 12 weeks for a maximum of $275 week. That rate is based on the unemployment numbers from 2019. But Rodriguez said that makes no sense with the explosion of unemployment caused by the COVID-19 shutdowns.

“What we're asking for is — Hey governor, just by executive order, why don’t you speed that up,” he said. “Correct the design flaw. That makes no sense right now.”

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.