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'We are falling apart': Year review of Florida's faulty unemployment system and its future

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Posted at 6:02 AM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 10:23:28-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) —

"We Are Falling Apart"

As the country began to shut down, unemployment claims started to surge across the country.

“This is daunting — I was on a phone call with other states and they’re facing the same type of increase,” said Ken Lawson, the former Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, during an interview early last year.

People who found themselves without a job in the middle of a global pandemic turned to the state of Florida for help. Instead, many said they found despair.

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“My electric is going to go off, my cell phone is going to go off, my car is being ready to be repossessed,” said Annette Exposito from Port Richey.

“It’s hard to lay in bed at night and think what can you get rid of so you can survive?” said Michael Tibbs, who lives in Hillsborough. “It’s just been one of the toughest times of my life.”

Our whole life just got stripped out of us. It’s almost like you’re having anxiety attacks,” said Dennis Tennell, laid off from his job in Clearwater.

”I’m lucky I have great friends to help me with rent,” said Leah Bloom, as she wiped away tears. She was furloughed from her hospitality job in Orlando. “I had to get food stamps, I never thought I would.”

“We are falling apart. We’re going to lose everything,” said Sherry Haper, who is from Leesburg and was laid off from her hospitality job too.

For months — people told us they hadn’t been paid or simply couldn’t get answers at all from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

Calls went unanswered and unreturned.

This has been… ugh,” one woman said in an interview.

Taking Action For You

Frustrated and ready to give up, thousands of people started to reach out to ABC Action News reporters. In May, their role in this debacle got even larger.

“Who’s still waiting? Can you give me the names?” asked Governor Ron DeSantis at a press conference in Jacksonville.

DeSantis followed up and said most people had been paid and those who hadn’t were likely to blame.

“Nine times out of 10, the application is incomplete,” he said. “I think if you have applied in that time period, and your application is complete and you qualify, I think 99.99% of those folks have been paid.”

“It’s kind of like kicking a dog when it’s down,” said Tibbs, during a May interview.

We decided to create a spreadsheet and told out-of-work Floridians to fill it out so we could send it to the DEO and governor.

But when a reporter in Orlando asked DeSantis if he received the spreadsheets numerous journalists were sending that morning, he suggested it’s a reporter’s job to vet those applications for social security numbers and verify if they are valid applicants.

I think it’s your responsibly if you’re representing that there is someone in March that hasn’t been paid to tell your viewers if that’s a valid application or not,” Governor DeSantis said.

The role of reporters is not to verify applicants,” responded attorney Ryan Barack, a Labor and Employment expert.

He said that would open people up to the possibility of fraud and identity theft.

In total, ABC Action News has sent in the names and information of more than 26,000 people. We sent Tibbs’ info in May after he spent months attempting to get his benefits.

“It seems like the bottom fell out of the bucket,” he said.

His issues were solved within 48 hours of reporter Heather Leigh reaching out to the DEO.

“If it wasn’t for people like you in the fight I don’t know if I would’ve ever received the benefits I needed,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t know if I’d be in the situation I am today.”

Tibbs went back to his job in June but thousands of others were still stuck in the system.

"It's Our hope Someone Will Be Held Accountable"

“It’s almost insulting to the state of humanity as far as we’ve come in technology that DEO says it can’t be done, nothing can handle this traffic! Amazon, Walmart, FedEx, UPS, none of them have this problem,” said Gautier Kitchen, the co-lead counsel on a lawsuit against DEO and Deloitte, the company behind CONNECT.

That lawsuit is currently going through the courts.

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And that’s what many lawmakers around the state hope for too.

“Floridians should be mad about this because it really is just ridiculous,” said State Representative Anna Eskamani, who represents District 47.

Dane Eagle, the DEO’s third Executive Director in one year, called on third-party vendors to investigate the system and find out what needs to change.

The Florida Office of Inspector General was also directed by the governor last year to investigate CONNECT.

ABC Action News reached out to the DEO to see if Dane Eagle wanted to talk about his ideas to fix the system, but was told: "he is not available now."

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Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried also urged the OIG for the investigation but has yet to receive any update on the outcome.

A spokesperson for Fried says they “do not expect a thorough investigation of the connect mismanagement that left Florida to be the second-worst state for paying unemployment benefits.”

Eskamani filed a bill that she believes would likely require a brand new system run on a cloud-based server, although, she’s open to incremental changes. But she says inaction is not an option.

“We have not seen the governor's proposed budget mention any of those changes and so that needs to be a part of the conversation as well,” she said.

“There’s no line item in here for a new website or any of that. It was conspicuously absent from many of us,” Pizzo said.

He says he’d like to wait and see what happens with the lawsuit against DEO and Deloitte. If it’s dismissed he’d like the legislature to exercise its subpoena power.

I would like to bring forward some of these parties that may be mentioned in the reports in the investigation, the Inspector General report, [and] bring them forward and have them raise the right hand and ask how we got here,” said Pizzo.

A Year Later

It’s been almost a year since troubles began for hundreds of thousands of people and they continue to suffer through the faulty system.

ABC Action News spoke to Gail McDermott just last week. She’s worked with Eskamani as well as state community activists to sort through issues. She believes we were the latest push that got her claim sorted out this time.

“I screamed! I screamed with joy!” McDermott said when she saw her claim was fixed.

At the beginning of February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirmed it is examining oversight of the federal and state unemployment insurance program during the pandemic and how at least six states, including Florida, implemented the CARES act programs through virtual sites. It plans to interview state unemployment insurance agency officials and advocacy groups but officials will also hold group discussions with claimants.

The US Inspector General also looked at all states' distribution of unemployment insurance claims and released a report Wednesday on the findings. Click here to see the full report.