Gov. Ron DeSantis called Monday for an investigation into Florida’s hopelessly overwhelmed unemployment compensation system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor complained during a news conference in the Capitol that the state sank $77.9 million into the unemployment CONNECT system that’s riddled with bugs and totally incapable of coping with a massive surge in claims seen since the disease outbreak closed so many businesses.
“People want an accounting,” he said.
“It’s one thing to not have a good system if you go on the cheap or whatever. But to pay that much money, and then all the problems we’ve had to deal with, you know, is a big problem,” DeSantis continued.
“So, I am going to be directing the inspector general to do an investigation into how the CONNECT system was paid for, the different amendments to the contract and go through that whole thing,” he said. “That’s something that’s very important for the people of Florida to know.”
The move came one day after DeSantis began relaxing stay-home restrictions he’d imposed on people and businesses in early April. The governor argues that Florida how has sufficient hospital capacity to handle any COVID surges.
As of 11 a.m., the state had reported 819 new cases and 20 deaths, bringing the total to 36,897 cases and 1,399 deaths.
The unemployment system, designed when Rick Scott (now Florida’s junior U.S. senator) was governor, broke down in the COVID joblessness surge. See here, for example.
The weekly average applications had been running at under 10,000 for the past two years but spiked to 58,570 this year — including January and February when claims were low, DeSantis said.
The state Department of Economic Opportunity posts application data here.
“If you were to look at just mid-March until the present, that 58,000 would be even higher,” he said.
Now officials basically are trying to rebuild the system while also trying to manage claims. That’s including adding servers, for a total of 72 now, and software improvements that have vastly speeded up the system. The state has also shifted some 2,000 workers from other agencies to help and distributed paper applications and ramped up call centers.
Additionally, DeSantis has waived some of the red tape involved in filing for unemployment, including a requirement to document that the applicant is looking for work.
Earlier in the day, Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, a Democrat, amped the pressure on the Repubican governor by releasing a letter to Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel asking her to investigate the situation.
Fried noted that audits in 2015, 2016, and 2019 found “major, systematic problems” that the administration now is spending $110 million to try to fix.
“Given these failures, I hereby request that pursuant to Section 14.32(2)(a), Florida Statutes, you initiate an investigation into potential mismanagement of the CONNECT unemployment system, Fried wrote.
Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo issued her own public statement.
“Florida’s unemployment system has been shutting out too many Floridians for far too long. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature should expand eligibility for unemployment to match the federal assistance program,” she said.
“It is the right thing to do to help those in need. It is also smart business because if too many Floridians can’t pay their bills, the ripple effects will devastate Florida’s economy. Governor DeSantis, please act now before it’s too late.”
The development followed news reports about a draft federal report, apparently prepared by the CDC, suggesting COVID cases would hit 200,000 a day by the beginning of June and that deaths would surpass 3,000 per day.
A draft government report projects covid-19 cases will surge to about 200,000 per day by June 1, a staggering jump that would be accompanied by more than 3,000 deaths each day.
In the Florida Supreme Court, meanwhile, Chief Justice Charles Canady extended his suspension of jury trials through July 2, with some proceedings allowed via electronic technology