There’s work, but state fails at its job

Residents look for work at a jobs fair last year in Miami Lakes.
Residents look for work at a jobs fair last year in Miami Lakes. AP

File this one under “good news/bad news.”

The unemployment rate in Miami-Dade County, seasonally adjusted, went down in September. According to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, it dipped a bit, to 5.8 from 5.9 in August. One may curse the cranes in the sky building high-rise condos and the surge of residents who will make traffic even more unbearable, but they are a sign that South Florida’s economy is making a steady recovery.

Throw in tourism continuing apace and more consumer confidence. Therefore, more people actively looking for employment found it.

Broward County, as well — and the state of Florida, overall — saw unemployment drop. More people statewide are making the economy hum. That’s the good news. The bad new is that those who remain out of work are still at great risk of being needlessly thwarted by the state of Florida’s very expensive but practically useless unemployment-insurance website, the target of a recent piece by Herald columnist Fred Grimm.

Basically, out-of-work Floridians are getting stiffed by the state. The website, CONNECT, after $77 million for installation and subsequent repairs, doesn’t work. Pages freeze and error messages abound. Residents wholly eligible for unemployment benefits get rejection notices instead.

The website came on line two years ago, touted as state of the art. Instead, it remains in a sorry state of inaccessibility. CONNECT has been an expensive roadblock between too many unemployed residents and the funds they need to pay rent or a mortgage, put food on the table and pay the bills during a tough time.

Worse, state officials have seemed to have remained content to let this untenable situation remain in place. Their smug complacency should end — now. It’s not as if they have been caught unaware. The problems started right off the bat when the website rolled out in October 2013. It was such a mess that the U.S. Department of Labor parachuted in, forcing the state to pay benefits upfront and address the site’s problems later.

Well, it’s later.

In February, Florida’s auditor general issued its findings that during a four-month period in 2014, 44 percent of the more than 408,000 claims processed were simply sent off into the web equivalent of the Twilight Zone. Applicants were instructed to submit their Social Security numbers, even though that was not a requirement. Moreover, the audit found weak security protections.

In March, the Economic Policy Institute reported that 81.3 percent of the state’s short-term unemployed had received no benefits last year.

And just last month, the National Employment Law Project said this: “CONNECT is more complex and requires more individualized adjudications than the prior filing system. As a result, Florida has been among the slowest states in the nation in determining the eligibility of unemployed workers who apply for [unemployment insurance] benefits.”

One can’t help but think this is deliberate. In 2011, the Legislature imposed a series of major changes to the program that, the most recent report says, “made it more difficult for unemployed workers to access, qualify for and maintain benefits, and decreased the duration of benefits qualified unemployed workers were eligible to receive. The law imposed new barriers to benefit eligibility and expanded benefit disqualifications.”

State lawmakers should call Jesse Panuccio, head of the Department of Economic Opportunity, to account and remove the stumbling blocks that they put in place in 2011.

It’s unconscionably perverse that $77 million isn’t too much to spend to deny eligible Floridians the mere hundreds of dollars each month that would keep them afloat.