Florida agency will ask for overhaul of troubled website

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s unemployment agency is asking lawmakers for $5 million to hire 108 new employees to handle increasingly complex unemployment claims, part of an overall legislative request that could include spending millions more to overhaul the state’s beleaguered unemployment website.

The Department of Economic Opportunity’s new executive director, former state Rep. Dane Eagle, said Tuesday that he’s hired an outside company to find out how and why the unemployment website, known as CONNECT, failed this year amid a crush of pandemic-related jobless claims.

“We can’t ask for the moon,” Eagle said Tuesday. “We’re trying to be reasonable.”

That review will help him and lawmakers decide what to do with website. Eagle said he’s eyeing two options: Keeping the existing system and moving it into a cloud-based server, where it will be better equipped to handle massive numbers of users at a time, or scrapping it entirely and building a new system from scratch.

Building a new system is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars, a hefty price tag for legislators who are already talking about pandemic-related budget cuts next year. CONNECT, for example, carried a $77 million price tag when it launched in 2013.

Whether, and how, to overhaul the state’s unemployment website will be one of a variety of unemployment-related issues lawmakers are preparing to tackle ahead of next year’s legislative session, which begins March 2.

Democrats and Republicans are considering raising the state’s maximum unemployment benefits, which currently top out at $275 per week. They’re also considering holding legislative hearings to understand how CONNECT failed in mid-March, frustrating millions of Floridians. In their desperation, many turned to their state lawmakers for help filing claims.

The agency has spent more than $61 million this year to hire additional call centers, staffers and equipment to handle the crush of claims.

Eagle, a former Republican state representative and commercial real estate broker from Cape Coral, was tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to take over the state’s unemployment agency in September.

Part of his request to his former counterparts next session will be to hire more than 100 new workers to handle complicated claims and appeals, at a cost of nearly $5 million. The agency is still receiving hundreds of thousands of calls from Floridians per week, Eagle said. The new hires would allow the agency to stop relying on the third-party call centers it hired this year, he said.

“It takes a trained, educated staff to be able to do that, so that’s what we’re asking for,” Eagle said.

In a normal year, an agency’s request for more than 100 new employees would be a tough sell in the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature. The House’s new Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said Tuesday it was too early to say whether the money would be there for the unemployment agency.

State lawmakers are still considering whether they’ll have to make deep cuts to the budget to account for a dramatic shortfall in revenue earlier this year.

“We’ve got some rebounding to do as it relates to the amount of dollars we can spend,” he said.

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said he expects the agency to get plenty of help this session.

“I think everybody has an appetite to improve (the agency),” Pizzo said.

But he said without holding hearings next session about how CONNECT failed this year, he doesn’t expect lawmakers to be willing to invest tens of millions more in its replacement.

“Unless you found out what went wrong, how do we know the questions to ask the next vendor?” he said. “Let’s find out why it doesn’t work before even talking about investing tens of millions of dollars in another one.”

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