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With federal help, Florida to start paying claims held up by state’s new jobless website

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.

The arrival here of a team of U.S. Labor Department officials has apparently broken the logjam for thousands of jobless Floridians unable to get benefits through the state’s troubled unemployment compensation website.

Labor officials have given the state permission to pay unemployment claims to anyone whose case has been under review for seven days or longer, said Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the state’s Department of Employment Opportunity.

“This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system,” Panuccio said. “Some claimants have suffered and DEO and USDOL are committed to helping them through all legal and available means.”

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who pushed the Labor Department to review the state’s problem with its CONNECT website, praised the federal action.

“The secretary of labor promised me that he would send his folks to Florida to fix the mess the state has made of its unemployment benefits system, and it seems he’s doing exactly that,” Nelson said.

The state’s employment opportunity department has been flooded with complaints about the CONNECT website since the system was launched in mid-October. Social media has been filled with posts from Floridians who say they have endured a computer hell as they try to file claims and are alternately kicked off the site or forced to wait hours on helplines.

Panuccio last week told a state Senate committee that 73 percent of claims are being paid within a week. But he acknowledged that as many as 60,000 Floridians may be in “adjudication” status, awaiting a determination of their claims.

The U.S. labor department’s action should accelerate payments for many, officials said.

However, those who receive payments while their cases remain in dispute could have to repay the money if they are later found to have been ineligible, the News Service of Florida reported. Also, as part of the agreement to distribute funds, employers who pay unemployment-assistance taxes won’t be held responsible for what could result in overpayments to people.

Gov. Rick Scott said of the issue Tuesday, “I want to make sure that anyone who has to rely on unemployment benefits gets their benefits. But more importantly, I want to make sure everyone can get a job.”

Testifying to the Senate panel last week, Panuccio placed blame for the $63 million website on Deloitte Consulting LLP.

The technology giant, which has had problems developing similar websites in Massachusetts and California, has been fined $15,000 daily by the state economic opportunity department since Dec. 23 for failing to deliver what the state calls a “fully functioning” system. The state also withheld a $3 million payment to the company last month.

Deloitte has responded that many of the problems are rooted in the state system – and “beyond Deloitte’s control.”

The federal attention is not the first time the U.S. Labor Department has weighed in on Florida’s handling of jobless benefits.

After a workers advocacy organization, the National Employment Law Project, filed a complaint in 2012, the federal agency slapped Scott’s administration over a 2011 law enacted by the Republican-led Legislature, which requires that all benefit applications be filed online.

U.S. officials said the requirement discriminates against minorities and the disabled who may have trouble accessing computers.

Federal officials are still negotiating with the state over possible remedies to the 2011 law – although some Florida Democrats in the Legislature say that the online-only system should be revamped to help those without easy access.

The National Employment Law Project said jobless Floridians may have lost more than $22 million in benefits during October and November because of problems with CONNECT.

While the initial problems with CONNECT mostly involved faulty PIN numbers and applicants having trouble submitting claims for specific weeks, the bulk of the hold-up now stems from cases being “adjudicated.”

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