Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida uses “virtually inaccessible” website to deny jobless benefits

A screenshot of CONNECT, Florida’s $63 million unemployment insurance website.
A screenshot of CONNECT, Florida’s $63 million unemployment insurance website.

Maybe it was never supposed to work.

Two years after the launch of CONNECT, Florida’s celebrated $63 million state-of-the-art unemployment insurance website, the damn thing remains so glitchy, so difficult for jobless workers to navigate, so discouraging, that a conspiracy theorist might wonder whether that was exactly the point.

Sure, $63 million seemed a lot to pay for an online filing system that greets applicants with a cascade of freezes, error messages and unwarranted rejections. Especially now that bills for the apparently failed repairs to the website have jacked up the cost to $77 million.

Maybe I’ve been looking at this the wrong way, worried about out-of-work, out-of-money Floridians denied or delayed rightful unemployment insurance claims because of a confounding website and onerous new rules.

Last month, the National Employment Law Project issued a report concluding that “Florida has imposed a series of burdensome process requirements and technological obstacles so severe that unemployment insurance is virtually inaccessible for the average jobless Floridian seeking benefits earned through their work histories.”

Only 12 percent of Florida’s eligible jobless receive their unemployment benefits, according to the report, putting Florida in an ignominious tie with South Carolina for the lowest rates in the nation.

Not that this is news to Tallahassee. In March, the Economic Policy Institute reported that 81.3 percent of the state’s short-term unemployed received no benefits last year.

The month before, the state auditor general issued a harsh 45-page performance audit finding that during a four-month period last year, 44 percent of the 408,256 unemployment benefits claims processed had been inexplicably diverted into a mysterious queue that left them lost in a kind of digital netherworld. The report also found that applicants had been wrongfully required to enter their Social Security numbers into a system easily breached by hackers, with few controls to safeguard the “confidentiality, availability and integrity of its data.”

The audit found that the screwy CONNECT repeatedly entered erroneous data onto applications that had the effect of negating legitimate claims or even — like some sick joke on the unemployed — wrongly charged claimants for phantom overpayments.

None of this is new. CONNECT was rolled out in October 2013, and has been plagued by horror stories since. By the following January, the U.S. Department of Labor intervened, pushing Florida to start paying out benefits that had been hopelessly clogged up by the CONNECT mess.

Just last week, according to the Sun Sentinel, state senators in committee meetings in Tallahassee complained of how so many constituents were being stymied by the CONNECT website.

Maybe I should be thinking, instead, of all the money Florida has saved by losing or denying legitimate unemployment compensation applications.

Maybe that’s why Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity and the man who oversaw this mess, hasn’t been fired.

Good thing, too. Because Panuccio would know better than anyone just what a hellish, formidable, discouraging task he would have trying to wrest his unemployment benefits from this cynical operation.