DEO official grilled about unemployment system failures

Posted at 6:52 PM, May 26, 2020

FLORIDA — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The fight to help Floridians receive unemployment benefits continues.

A hearing scheduled for three hours Tuesday lasted more than seven hours.

The hearing took place using a Zoom conference call, but still had a judge, attorneys and witnesses.

The state’s attorneys are arguing the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) has already been working to make payments and has sovereign immunity from such lawsuits.

But attorneys for the unemployed lined up several witnesses who say they've unsuccessfully been trying for months to log on to the CONNECT website to apply for benefits.

The DEO's CFO was asked why problems with the system weren’t fixed last year when state auditors warned the Governor about glitches and more than 600 system errors.

“You did not know delays in fixing the system could have a dramatic effect on hundreds of thousands of Floridians who are unemployed and couldn’t get money? You didn’t know that," asked attorney Marie Mattox.

“I didn’t know COVID was going to happen to cause this massive increase. Fixes were being scheduled," answered DEO CFO David Steffans.

“But they had not been accomplished, even though you had been warned. The DEO system had been warned as early as 2013 that there were fatal flaws in the unemployment system. Isn’t that right," said Mattox.

“I don’t want to use the term fatal flaws. Were there things that needed to be fixed. Yes. I’m not arguing that.," said Steffans.

Another witness was a former DEO employee who worked in a call center.

He said he dealt with the system’s failures first hand, where people couldn’t find out if they were eligible for benefits.

“Nearly every call that I took they were unable to view. It would literally say, 'Determination not available,' when they would click to view determination and they were left wondering what to do," said Reginald Ellison.

This lawsuit is asking a judge to force officials to fix the online unemployment system, although even Judge John Cooper admitted he may not have the authority to do that.

Steffans said since the pandemic, DEO upgraded its technology and added hundreds of employees to help its overwhelmed system.

They say they’ve processed about a million and a half claims and paid 95% of those who are eligible.

Steffans testified he had no idea how many people have been wrongly-deemed ineligible for unemployment benefits.

He also said about 46,000 people who are eligible still haven’t been paid. And he’s not sure when that will happen.

Judge Cooper kicked one woman off the Zoom call after she interrupted the hearing saying, "you have to protect us. Really you do. You have to protect us."

Judge Moore said booting her off the Zoom was the equivalent of having a bailiff escort her out.

The hearing will continue on Thursday at 1 p.m.