In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Florida’s CONNECT website for unemployed is disconnected

For Hannah Klingsberg, the hassles collecting her unemployment compensation go beyond the money, although goodness knows she could have used those last few elusive checks, the ones that seem to have vanished in a bureaucratic fog.

“A thousand dollars could have paid a lot of bills,” she says.

But it was the attendant indignities that Florida heaps upon the unemployed that so bothers the Boynton Beach woman. The unworkable website. The unanswered help-lines. The pervasive sense that employees of Florida’s misnamed Department of Economic Opportunity consider the likes of Hannah Klingsberg undeserving shirkers. As if Florida’s jobless were so many grifters wrangling for free money. As if those weekly benefits, topping out at $275, were paid out of Gov. Rick Scott’s personal bank account.

“It’s not right, the way they treat us,” says Klingsberg, who lost her marketing job last year. “I’ve been working since I was 16.” She’s 73. The governor was 2 years old when she collected her first paycheck.

Klingsberg had no complaints with DEO’s previous computer system. “It was fine before they changed it.” Nor did she mind meeting the state’s requirement that she apply for at least five new jobs each week. “I was sending out more applications than that, stacks of them. I needed a job. But when they see ‘73’ on the applications, it’s tough.” Then, on Oct. 15, the state introduced a $63 million new website, called CONNECT, to process unemployment applications to replace the clunky 30-year-old system.

Clunky, as it turned out, worked better. Some large percentage of the state’s 235,000 unemployment benefit applicants couldn’t connect with CONNECT. As the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau’s Michael Van Sickler has been reporting since the new system’s ballyhooed debut, CONNECT has been a dispiriting cascade of glitches and freezes and error messages — failures that clogged up some $22 million worth of unemployment checks for jobless folks, many in desperate circumstances.

Klingsberg (who is starting a new, albeit low-paying job this month) says that although she was told by DEO that she was eligible for another four weeks of compensation, attempts to circumvent the inoperable website and reach the DEO by telephone have been mostly futile. “It’s absolutely impossible. It’s always busy.” The only human response she managed to elicit over the weeks was an unfriendly voice telling her to check the website. “Human” may be an exaggeration.

The state’s pricy website failure came with a big dollop of political irony. CONNECT’s failed launch coincided with the infamous introduction of the Obamacare website, with similar problems fairly celebrated by critics of the Affordable Care Act, including our own governor. But while seems to have been repaired, CONNECT remains an ongoing debacle — which might have made for some great smart-ass satire except that the Obamacare problems were abstractions having to do with delays in buying health insurance. The Florida failures caused real human misery. Talk to someone like Stephanie Holloway and it sucks the humor out of the story.

From October through December, the out-of-work Fort Lauderdale healthcare worker’s unemployment checks (renamed “reemployment assistance” by state officials back in 2011 to show these shiftless loafers that Rick Scott’s not fooling around) were lost in the CONNECT oblivion. “I’d sit all day at the computer, typing in my password and social again and again. I’d get on, hit a button, it would lock me out. I’d do it again. It’d knock me right off.

“I’d try to call. If I got through, they’d treat me like I was nothing. They’d put me on hold and forget about me. They don’t care. Like they don’t really work for us.”

Holloway, 46, who is raising her 7-year-old grandchild, says those months without income were devastating. She fell behind in rent and lost her apartment. Other bills piled up. She had little money for food for her and her grandson. There was no money to give the kid a Christmas. She was unable to visit her husband, incarcerated in a north Florida prison. And she had no money to buy her diabetes and blood pressure medicine. In December, her blood sugar and blood pressure soared, until Holloway, dizzy and losing coherence and with a kidney infection she blames on a lack of medication, was forced to spend the evening in the emergency room.

Florida won’t issue checks unless the beneficiary documents that he or she has applied for at least five jobs a week, and completes a skills test, creating a volume of paperwork that takes high-powered computing to process. Something CONNECT failed to deliver. But DEO finally freed up her “reemployment assistance” last month and sent her a lump sum. By then, Holloway and her grandson had been forced to move into a crowded apartment with a relative. “It all just seemed so stupid,” she says.

It was stupid. Either that or downright cruel. As Van Sickler reported last month, when California ran into similar problems last September with its own dodgy unemployment compensation website (built by the same contractor, Deloitte Consulting), state officials there started cutting checks immediately. California, mindful of the dire economic problems facing the jobless, decided to pay claims first, verify them later.

Florida waited until Jan. 18 to adopt that same policy — bowing to pressure from Sen. Bill Nelson and the U.S. Department of Labor, and no doubt embarrassed by Van Sickler’s reporting. For months, DEO had tried to process that giant pile of claims by paying workers overtime and hiring extra clerks and adding 80 operators to man the agency helplines — 80 to handle calls for 235,000 claimants. No wonder so many calls went unanswered. No wonder 10,000 jobless people waited weeks and months for their checks.

But Florida, under Scott, prefers a get-tough attitude. His administration has adopted a default position that the jobless, even in a state still suffering the effects of a recession, are clods, more deserving of a kick to the behind than a 16-week return on their unemployment insurance.

It is a begrudging process that lends truth to Holloway’s observation: “They could care less about us.”

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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