Benefits system meant to be bad
Tired of looking like the captain of a sinking ship, Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for an investigation into the state’s disastrous unemployment system.
The probe will attempt to figure out why Florida spent $78 million on a system that works about as well as two tin cups connected by chewed-up Juicy Fruit.
Really, though, we already know why the system stinks: Because when Rick Scott and GOP legislators reworked the system in 2011, they wanted to stiff laid-off workers out of benefits, so businesses could pay lower taxes.
And everyone who has been in charge since — including DeSantis, whose administration was told by auditors that the system was a mess more than a year ago — was fine with that mess until now, when Floridians demanded accountability.
So now DeSantis and Scott are pointing fingers at each other. Meanwhile, desperate Floridians just want help.
I thought we’d try to untangle all this with a Q&A, starting with most-frequently asked Q in Florida:
Where the [bleep] are my benefits?
I wish I could tell you.
So far, this is the worst Q&A ever.
That’s fair. But there are hundreds of thousands of claims, and the state has given no precise answer on when they’ll all be vetted.
How bad is this system?
Think of the Hindenburg … crashing into the Titanic. In midApril (a full month into this crisis), Florida had processed only 4% of the claims submitted. If we were grading this, that’d be an F-minus-minus.
But some people say no system could ever handle a giant spike like the coronavirus crisis prompted.
Those people are full of it.
What do you mean?
Sure, there was a giant spike.
But other states handled it — better, at least. Early on, smaller states were processing more claims in a week than Florida did in a month. And Nevada has distributed more federal benefits than Florida, even though Nevada is oneseventh our size, the Tampa Bay Times reported this week.
That makes us sound incompetent.
Well, that’s not a question. But I’d concur.
Why was it like this?
Because Rick Scott and legislators wanted it that way. In 2011, Scott wanted to make sure businesses didn’t pay much in unemployment taxes. Well, if you don’t take much in, you can’t pay much out. So a Scott advisor asked legislators to focus on “controlling the outflow of benefits.”
“Controlling the outflow” sounds like a bladder issue.
It does. He meant he didn’t want to pay people.
Can you prove it?
Yes. Florida’s benefits were already some of the lowest in America, capping out at $275 a week. But they also changed the rules, so payments could stop after as soon as 12 weeks, the shortest coverage period in America. They also made it tougher to keep the benefits, requiring recipients to prove they’d applied for five jobs every week, and to apply online, using this nowinfamous system. After all that, Florida had the lowest unemployment insurance tax collections in America — an average of $50 per employee per year, less than one-fifth of the nation’s $277 average.
So it sounds like stiffing workers was what the system was designed to do.
We’re 500 words in, and I feel like you’re finally catching on.
Did people know this?
Heck yeah. By 2015, Florida ranked No. 1 in denying unemployment benefits. The Sentinel ran a headline that year: “Florida benefits are virtually inaccessible.”
Did other people care?
Media and watchdogs. Also the people who were directly affected. But laidoff workers don’t have much lobbying clout in Tallahassee. So, much like disabled families and preschool kids, they get short-changed in Tallahassee.
But what about all the federal benefits? Even if my state’s a dumpster fire, shouldn’t I by entitled to the federal money?
You should. But you’re not. You have to make it through Florida’s dysfunction to qualify for the federal money.
So this is all Rick Scott’s fault?
No. Legislators approved this system, too. Some, such as Scott
Plakon and Jason Brodeur, are still in office or running again this year.
Can they claim they didn’t know?
Not really. Even DeSantis now says the system was “designed to fail.” And the flaws and failures were widely documented in newspaper stories and state audits.
Wait, there were audits?
Yes. State audits found problems with the (ironically named) CONNECT system in 2015, 2016 and 2019.
Hold on. DeSantis was governor in 2019.
Correct. Last year’s audit cited hundreds of problems with CONNECT, including “incorrect error messages” and people who were locked out of their accounts for more than a year.
So DeSantis was told about these problems but didn’t fix them?
Well, he claimed Monday that the March 2019 audit never “reached my desk,” that his unemployment czar didn’t flag it for him and that legislators never asked him for money to fix the problems.
That seems like buckpassing.
So now what’s happening?
The state spent another $110 million on call-center workers and website improvement. Things are working better. But many Floridians are still waiting. So DeSantis has ordered the state’s inspector general to figure out how this fiasco happened.
And who does the inspector general answer to?
Now I see why Rick Scott’s nervous.
Yes, Scott is now a U.S. Senator and trying to blame DeSantis’ chief of staff, who was involved in awarding the CONNECT contract to Deloitte Consulting more than a decade ago, just before Scott took office and reshaped the program.
Does anyone accept responsibility?
Not that I’ve seen.
So what should I do?
If you’re still waiting on benefits, contact either your state House or Senate member’s offices. (Contact info at leg.state.fl.us) Most have constituent-service aides who are trying their best to bird-dog individual cases.
The other thing you should do is remember all of this before you cast your next vote.