U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Senate Democrat, called on the Department of Labor to investigate Florida’s glitch-ridden unemployment system, asserting on Monday that the state mismanaged claims and failed to deliver timely benefits after massive job losses from the coronavirus pandemic.
In a letter to the department's inspector general, Schumer joined the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, in requesting an inquiry into the Department of Labor’s oversight of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which administers the application portal for jobless benefits.
“While all states have seen record increases in the number of its residents applying for unemployment, the state of Florida’s performance has proved uniquely poor in its abject inability to assist millions of Florida residents who have applied for and continue to await unemployment benefits,” their letter said.
The Democratic senators assert that the state has only paid 28% of the 2 million Floridians applying for benefits since March 15 — but that assertion appeared to rely on month-old data.
According to current statistics from Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity, more than half of unemployment claims have been paid.
The department contends that more than 90 percent of 1.3 million eligible claimants it has processed have been paid. But the state’s calculation does not include nearly 500,000 people deemed ineligible, as well as hundreds of thousands more that are apparently still waiting for their claims to be processed.
"What else do I need to do? I have tried everything, every time I get someone on the phone, they have no answer," Erick Griffin told NBC 6.
Griffin has been trying since April to verify his identity with the DEO. It's an early step in the process that has prevented him from completing his application and getting benefits. He says he has faxed copies of his personal documents and called for help but has had no luck so far.
"Saying that the system is broken is an understatement," Griffin said.
At the end May, the DEO, in partnership with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, launched a website to verify the identity of claimants who have been locked out of their CONNECT account.
A spokesperson told NBC 6 told claimants in need of the website would be provided a direct link to verify their information so they can access their account and have their Reemployment Assistance claims processed.
Griffin says he has not been given access to the verification tool yet.
What is not in dispute is that the spike in joblessness after Gov. Ron DeSantis closed bars and nightclubs, drastically restricted restaurant operations and put in place stay-at-home social distancing policies to help contain the virus.
The governor's spokesperson, Helen Ferre, dismissed Schumer's call for an investigation as “partisan politics.” Ferre noted that the governor has called one of his own inspectors general to conduct an investigation into the online portal known as CONNECT.
“More than $4.6 billion has been paid to close to 1.3 million Florida residents," Ferre said, “and under Governor DeSantis’ direction, more will be done to ensure that all who are owed unemployment benefits receive them.”
The senators questioned the slow place in which unemployment funds have been paid out to the state's newly unemployed, including money disbursed through the federal economic rescue package. Meanwhile, the senators noted that Florida is the only state whose unemployment trust fund gained money in that period.
DeSantis has acknowledged that his state's unemployment system is broken and ordered his own investigators to look into the system's failures.
DeSantis has begun reopening much of Florida's economy, allowing some Floridians to return to work even as the state continues to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
As of Monday, the state has recorded nearly 65,000 coronavirus infections, with more than 2,700 Floridians having died from the virus.
The Democratic senators said problems with Florida's CONNECT system predated the pandemic, which caused the state's unemployment rate to spiked to 12.9% in April, up from 4.3% the month before.
State audits had found repeated failures in the system, which the governor has acknowledged was not designed to be able to handle the surge in claims.
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