Ben­e­fits sys­tem meant to be bad

Orlando Sentinel - - Local & State - Scott Maxwell Sen­tinel Colum­nist

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.

It does.

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?

Ron De­San­tis.

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.

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