The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity recently announced that it would hire more than 300 new employees to deal with and fix problems created by the state’s new unemployment compensation computer system CONNECT.
CONNECT was designed and developed by Deloitte Consulting, a global consulting and outsourcing company.
As state unemployment agencies have faced growing challenges caused by an increase in the populations they serve and outdated computer systems, they have turned to private companies to fix the problems.
But these fixes have been problematic. In Pennsylvania, the state scrapped a project with IBM to redesign its unemployment compensation system because the project was 42 months late and $60 million over budget
Like Florida, California and Massachusetts have also experienced problems with Deloitte designed unemployment compensation systems.
Florida began contracting with Deloitte to redesign its system in 2009.
The project became more urgent when in 2011 the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott required workers seeking unemployment benefits to apply online.
The $62 million CONNECT project took four years but after several delays, the new system with its online application website started operating in October.
As soon as the website went up, applicants found it difficult to access it, and when they did, they sometimes ended up in endless loops without successfully completing the application.
“I’m still stumped,’’ said Cathy Boyce to the Boston Globe after she tried to apply on CONNECT. She told the Globe that she spent two days trying to apply for benefits.
“I completed my form. It responded that it was ‘pending,’ then the screen sent me to ‘workforce registration’,” said Boyce to the Globe. “But it wouldn’t accept my PIN number.”
Boyce’s problem was not uncommon.
As time passed, CONNECT created more problems. It’s biggest problem was that routine applications that should have been processed immediately were referred to the review process where more complicated applications go to determine eligibility.
As a result, tens of thousands of people who should be getting unemployment compensation have been left in limbo while their applications wait for review.
As more valid applications are referred to the review process, the backlog builds up making waits for eligibility determination even longer.
To deal with this problem, DEO announced that it would hire 250 new employees to clear the backlog.
But the hiring will take place over a three-month period, which won’t help many who desperately need their unemployment checks now.
The difficulties with the CONNECT website also put a strain on DEO’s call center that is supposed to help applicants resolve problems with their applications.
Callers couldn’t get through to the call center or if they got through, there were long waits before they could get service.
DEO said that it will add 80 new employees at the call centers to help resolve these problems.
In the meantime, DEO withheld a $3.5 million payment that Deloitte was supposed receive in December. DEO said that it would fine Deloitte $15,000 a day until the problems are fixed.
This isn’t the first time that Deloitte was fined by Florida’s DEO. In 2012, DEO penalized Deloitte $4.5 million for delays in CONNECT’s implementation.
The problems with CONNECT should have been foreseen.
Before Florida implemented CONNECT, a similar system designed by Deloitte was launched in Massachusetts.
The Boston Globe reports that Deloitte delivered the new system two years late and $6 million over budget. When it was finally implemented applicants experienced problems similar to the ones being experienced in Florida.
CONNECT has exacerbated problems that Florida’s unemployed already face. Their average weekly benefit is $232 a week, and their maximum benefit is $275 a week, both among the lowest in the US.
The length of time that unemployed people in Florida can receive unemployment benefits is tied to the state’s unemployment rate, currently at 6.4 percent. As a result, unemployment benefits now last only 16 weeks.
Unfortunately, Florida has an average unemployment duration of 48 weeks, the highest in the US.
When Congress in December eliminated benefits for the long-term unemployed, 73,000 Floridians lost their benefits. If Congress does not restore these benefits, an estimated 260,400 Floridians will lose benefits this year.
If Congress restores these benefits, those reapplying may find it difficult to reconnect with their benefits because of CONNECT.