Millions of dollars going to fix Florida’s unemployment system, so when will we see changes?

What’s the future of unemployment in Florida? After a year of glitches, holds, and unanswered calls, the head of Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity says it’s better prepared now more than ever to fix the system.

But when will we see changes?

While the volume of concerns has decreased, WINK News still gets emails, tweets, Facebook messages daily from viewers battling unemployment system issues, like fraud and missing payments.

People are still frustrated, but DEO Secretary Dane Eagle promises hope is on the horizon. Now that the legislative session is over, Eagle said the DEO got what it needed from legislators.

“I think it’s a piece of hope for all those who suffered through CONNECT and do continue to. It’s still something that we deal with.”

Over the next year, the Department is set to receive $19 million for continued IT costs and $56 million for operational costs, which will help with hiring and clearing the backlog. Most notably, it got $72 million to transform the current system into a fully cloud-based one over the next two years.

“As we build this out more modularly and are able to put those pieces in the cloud, people are going to notice CONNECT is going to be moving a little bit more quickly, the data is going to be syncing up a little bit better,” Eagle said. “And then by this time, or I’d say by the end of summer next year, fingers crossed, we might be able to have that new user face up and running too. So it’s more user-friendly.”

WINK News Investigative Reporter Sara Girard asked Eagle, “Before this is fully implemented, what’s being done to manage all of these issues that are still happening?”

“You’re right. That’s CONNECT,” Eagle said. “Unfortunately, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, as I say, sarcastically, because it keeps giving us a new problem every time we try to do something good with it.”

Eagle said they’re working on issues as they come up. Right now, the state is in the process of hiring 435 more people to work behind the scenes, and Eagle hopes they’ll have all those positions filled by the end of this summer.

At the same time, Eagle said the Department would phase out the admittedly unsuccessful third-party call centers.

“As we had to scale up as quickly as we could during the pandemic to do the call centers, we weren’t able to train them as best as we could,” Eagle said.

The new employees will get better training to manage DEO’s Help Center and correct any more hiccups.

The unemployment system has been notoriously plagued with hundreds of unresolved issues from years past. It’s all laid out in several audits that had previously fallen under the radar.

The most recent one, which studied the system in the middle of the pandemic, outlines existing problems and new ones.

On top of CONNECT’s shoddy performance, auditors say the department couldn’t provide accurate data, lost claimants’ paperwork, and failed to fix recurring bugs in the system connected to overpayments.

“What we’ve done is as we are building out this roadmap for CONNECT, we’ve also put it side by side with the audit to make sure that all those findings will be resolved,” Eagle said. “And hopefully, knock on wood, before the next audit is done, those will be resolved as the CONNECT Roadmap gets accomplished.”

Eagle says putting together the DEO’s roadmap on how to better deliver jobless benefits, and getting the legislature on the same page, is what got the Department the funding. Now, he promises major improvements, including a promise to resolve most if not all the problems laid out in the 2021 audit.

Eagle says DEO already started putting some of the systems on the cloud, which is why people haven’t seen it crashing as much as it did this time last year. Eventually, it will be a new system, using some data and coding from what we now know as CONNECT, with a new name.

Reporter:Sara Girard
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