Tens of thousands of unemployed Floridians may be in for a rough time as the state switches to a new system designed to help them get benefits.
The online system that Florida currently uses to process unemployment claims is going dark starting at noon Wednesday. The claims system will stay down and remain unavailable until Oct. 15. This mean that people who fail to put in their claims in time may have their payments delayed.
There are roughly 240,000 people in Florida receiving unemployment benefits that are usually claimed every two weeks. The maximum payment is $275 a week.
But even when that new system comes online, officials are warning of longer wait times and busier phone lines as Floridians adjust to the new "CONNECT" system. The $63 million computer system is being installed with the help of a company whose work has come under fire in other states.
The system put online in Massachusetts erroneously cut benefits to hundreds of jobless residents and required thousands of overtime hours by state employees to handle complaints about glitches. The project went so far off track that the state is considering firing Deloitte Consulting.
Monica Russell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Opportunity, insisted that Deloitte has "customized" the new system to meet the state's specific needs and that it has been "rigorously tested to help ensure its quality."
"Since February, numerous testers have been dedicated to this effort and we have been assured that the lessons learned from other states are being used to prevent similar issues from occurring in Florida," Russell wrote in an email in response to questions.
State officials say the new computer system will be a huge improvement over the current 30-year-old system used to process unemployment claims. The new system will also feature new anti-fraud measures.
But those who work with the poor and unemployed say they aren't sure that the state did much of a job getting the word out about the coming changes.
Valory Greenfield, an attorney with Florida Legal Services with Miami, said a seminar held recently in south Florida about the changeover was sparsely attended.
"It concerns me that outreach to the advocacy community and nonprofit community was not adequate," Greenfield said.
Russell said the department has tried to let people know about the pending switch.
The state says it is adding phone lines, extending call center hours and bringing in additional staff to answer questions about the change.
She said the state sent out letters — and emails — to more than 200,000 people who receive benefits. There have been announcements on the current system's webpage to let people know about the change.
Florida Legal Services is among the groups that have clashed with the administration of Gov. Rick Scott over its handling of unemployment claims.
The state in 2011 began requiring that unemployed people file their claims online. This drew a complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor that it discriminated against people with disabilities and those who speak another language. The federal government said earlier this year that the online requirement appeared to be a violation of federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws.
Florida officials have criticized the investigation and said it may be "politically motivated." Federal and state officials had negotiations in August over the dispute.
Russell contended that those negotiations "reinforced" Florida's position that the initial finding against the state relied on "insufficient evidence" but that the state is "working with our federal partner to reach a resolution."