By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s online unemployment system was never tested to meet the demands encountered during the coronavirus pandemic, and more than a dozen issues remained outstanding years after the system went live, according to a report released Thursday by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.
The 95-page draft report by Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel focused on the Department of Economic Opportunity’s CONNECT unemployment system, which cost $78 million and began operating in 2013. The system largely crashed last spring when it was inundated with claims as businesses shut down because of the pandemic.
In addition to issuing findings, Miguel recommended the state update what is known as the “System Disaster Preparedness Plan” for the unemployment system to incorporate lessons from the pandemic, strengthen administrative and physical infrastructure and consider moving the system’s data to a cloud service “to allow for greater scalability.”
The report was released three days after Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle told members of the Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response that retaining the current system is “not an option.”
In her findings, Miguel wrote that “the requirements for system capacity, as outlined in the 2010 (invitation to negotiate to contractors), were never fully tested nor documented.”
“The contract mandated system capacity for a minimum of 200,000 concurrent external users,” Miguel wrote. “We could not find evidence where DEO (the Department of Economic Opportunity) enforced this contract requirement. Deloitte’s stress testing documentation shows testing was for approximately 4,200 concurrent users (internal and external).”
Miguel wrote the independent verifications of the system as set by the department “were neither fully independent nor adequately rigorous.”
She also noted that of 31 findings from a 2015 state auditor general report about the system, more than half were still unresolved in 2019 and that a more-recent audit “identifies 14 issues still outstanding.”
DeSantis, who repeatedly lambasted the system as a “jalopy” and designed with “pointless roadblocks” to discourage people seeking jobless benefits, directed Miguel to undertake the review in May 2020 as the CONNECT system failed to handle the hundreds of thousands of jobless applications being submitted weekly in the early months of the pandemic.
During his presentation to the Senate committee this week, Eagle said more than $73 million will be needed over the next two years to revamp the system.
Eagle outlined a multi-year project aimed at upgrading the process of making claims, expanding contact center staffing and shifting stored data to a cloud-based portal with a company such as Amazon or Google.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, asked Eagle why the system issues weren’t addressed before the pandemic, as “this CONNECT system is garbage, and everyone has known that, and there’s been reports about how bad it was prior to the pandemic.”
Eagle, a former legislator who was appointed by DeSantis to run the department in September, replied that the state didn’t have the resources necessary for the upgrades.
According to Eagle, the state spent $49 million last year as the department scrambled to make emergency improvements to the system and hired hundreds of people to field questions about claims. The system was budgeted at $12 million a year.
Ken Lawson resigned as department director in August, a little more than four months after DeSantis put Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter in charge of shoring up the CONNECT system.
Since March 15, 2020, the Department of Economic Opportunity has handled more than 5.19 million claims, which have resulted in nearly 2.3 million claimants receiving more than $22.8 billion in state and federal assistance.
Miguel’s report awaits review and comments from vendors linked to CONNECT, including Deloitte Consulting, which was a major contractor.
Deloitte issued a statement Thursday evening that defended its work on the system.
“We are very sympathetic to the challenges some Florida residents have faced trying to access reemployment assistance, particularly at the outset of the pandemic,” Jonathan Gandal, managing director of Deloitte Services LP, said in the statement. “We finished work on the CONNECT project nearly six years ago after the state accepted the system and we met all of our obligations. We have not worked on CONNECT since May 2015, at which time the system was performing well above the agreed-upon standard for system availability and far exceeding the performance of the system it replaced. The drastic spike in COVID-related jobless claims overwhelmed many states’ unemployment systems, taxing even those that had the latest technological updates. Since the pandemic began, Deloitte has been proud to support several state clients that have paid more than $160 billion in benefits to unemployed workers and their families.”