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U.S. senator wants fed probe of delays wrought by Florida's new $63M unemployment website

Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A U.S. senator is calling for a federal investigation into problems plaguing Florida's new website for handling unemployment benefits since its launch last week.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, has asked the Department of Labor to investigate and make sure the state quickly fixes what has gone wrong with its Department of Economic Opportunity's new $63 million website for people to apply for unemployment compensation. It is the Labor Department that oversees programs to help American workers.

As reported by major Florida news outlets, the website that Gov. Rick Scott's administration launched last week has caused delays and frustrations among people trying to get help with unemployment benefits.

Today, Nelson asked Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez to have his department step in and investigate.

"While states administer their own unemployment compensation program ... they do so under the Department of Labor which oversees many of the programs our nation has for American workers, including unemployment benefits," Nelson wrote in a letter to Perez. "The main purpose behind this federal-state program is to help stabilize the economy during recessions. But it certainly won't be of much help in my state if those who have lost their jobs face protracted delays in seeking or receiving benefits."

Technical problems have reportedly frustrated many unemployed trying to use the CONNECT system featured on the website - right above a picture of the governor.

A spokeswoman in the Scott administration has publicly acknowledged "some users have encountered delays and problems accessing the system.''

While The Palm Beach Post reported that lots of Floridians are posting online tales of frustration, it's not known how many may be experiencing protracted delays in seeking unemployment help.

Following is Nelson's letter and background news articles:

October 30, 2013

Honorable Thomas E. Perez, Secretary

U.S. Department of Labor

200 Constitution Ave, NW

Washington, D.C. 20210

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Dear Secretary Thomas E. Perez:

It is being widely reported that an untold number of Floridians are having trouble applying for unemployment benefits because of problems plaguing the governor's and state's new $63 million economic opportunity website.

While states administer their own unemployment compensation program - Florida is relying on this online system - they do so under the Department of Labor which oversees many of the programs our nation has for American workers, including unemployment benefits.

The main purpose behind this federal-state program is to help stabilize the economy during recessions. But it certainly won't be of much help in my state if those who have lost their jobs face protracted delays in seeking or receiving benefits.

I would ask that you investigate the circumstances surrounding the roll out of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity's online unemployment claims system; or take this matter into account in any other pending investigation.

I am enclosing for your review a few recent media reports outlining more specifically the problems people in Florida are facing.

I would also ask that you look into whether the state is doing everything it can to correct problems with its website to meet the needs of all Floridians eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

I look forward to hearing from you on this matter soon. Please feel free to contact me or my counsel Clint Odom with any questions you or your staff may have.

Sincerely,

Bill Nelson

Fla. unemployment website designed by Deloitte also draws complaints

Palm Beach Post

By John Kennedy

OCTOBER 19, 2013

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida unemployment compensation system's new, $63 million website has left a trail of frustrated users, filling Facebook and Twitter with tales of online malfunctions and help lines that don't. The system was developed by Deloitte, the same firm responsible for the updated Massachusetts benefits system that also has been the subject of complaints.

"I'm still stumped,'' Cathy Boyce, an unemployed architect, said on Thursday of the Florida system. She spent two days trying to submit her weekly claim for a $275 payment.

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"I completed my form. It responded that it was 'pending,' then the screen sent me to 'workforce registration.' But it wouldn't accept my PIN number,'' Boyce said.

Boyce then picked up the phone. "I've been calling their help number since 7:30 a.m. It's been busy,'' she said. ''I can't figure it out.''

Boyce isn't alone.

"I've never seen a system with so many breakdowns,'' said Jerry Grenough of Jupiter, an auditor attempting to file his own unemployment claim.

Florida's CONNECT system, unveiled Monday, was developed by Deloitte Consulting, which has had problems in recent years with technology contracts in California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, state officials unveiled a $46 million unemployment benefits system created by Deloitte that was two years behind schedule, $6 million over budget, and plagued with a host of glitches that have caused problems for thousands seeking benefits. In many cases, the problems echo Florida's, as claimants wait on hold for hours or are disconnected when they call the state office for help.

Concerned about the ongoing barrage of complaints, the Massachusetts Senate'sCommittee on Post Audit and Oversight has scheduled an Oct. 28 hearing on problems with the rollout.

A legislative committee also moved this week to create a special commission to investigate how state information technology contracts are awarded and managed.

New York-based Deloitte LLP is one of the nation's largest management and information-technology consulting firms. It's among a handful of corporate giants providing information technology services to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Internal Revenue Service, as part of the Oct. 1 rollout of health exchanges.

Deloitte is represented in Tallahassee by high-powered lobbyist Brian Ballard, who also lobbies for US Sugar and several Palm Beach County cities.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity said the CONNECT system is ''operational'' and successfully received claims from more than 50,000 Floridians in its first two days. "Nonetheless, and as expected, some users have encountered delays and problems accessing the system,'' said the spokeswoman, Jessica Sims. ''Some of those issues are technical and some are an inevitable result of user acclimation to a new online interface.''

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She said the most common problems encountered involve trouble entering PIN numbers or data for the appropriate week payment is sought.

Megan Woolhouse of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Lessons from Florida's troubled website rollout

Sun Sentinel

By Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

October 29, 2013

Here we go again. After years of preparation, and millions of dollars spent to set it up, another troubled government website fails to launch properly and leaves thousands of frustrated users facing penalties if they can't access the website in a timely fashion.

Government officials knew there would be problems, but pressed on after delaying the initial launch and spending more than $6 million to ensure a better rollout.

Sound familiar?

This time, the problem isn't the fault of Obamacare. This time, the onus falls squarely on one of the biggest critics of federal healthcare reform, Gov. Rick Scott, who has some explaining to do for the troubled start-up of Florida's new website for unemployment benefits.

The website, called CONNECT, is the state's $63-million upgrade of the system for processing jobless claims and benefits. Officials at the state Department of Economic Opportunity concede the launch has had its hiccups, but dismiss the problems as "minor technical issues."

"Big picture, we feel really good about the rollout so far," DEO chief Jesse Panuccio told Orlando Sentinel columnist Jim Stratton.

Try telling that to the 235,000 Floridians who rely on the webpage, which of late has produced almost as many error messages, long waits and system crashes as benefits. The state DEO hotlines aren't much help, either. Trying to reach a real human voice during the CONNECT rollout has proven difficult. Maria Rodriguez is one of the fortunate ones. She reached a DEO representative, but learned her next jobless-benefits check wouldn't arrive before November.

"They said it was a glitch in system that was preventing me from receiving a payment," Rodriguez said.

Detailed information on how many people have tried and failed to process their unemployment compensation claims has been slow in coming. The department has increased operations at its call centers, where 250 employees are manning the phones for people unable to get through on the web.

If there is one enduring lesson from this debacle, aside from the need to better vet government technology contracts and better test government websites before their rollouts, it is that real live humans should be around to help people who are unable to navigate web-based systems.

But in 2011, Florida stopped accepting benefits applications over the phone or in person, forcing applicants to go online. The change saved the state $4.7 million annually in administrative costs, but the lack of a live operator creates a frustrating quagmire for applicants.

The website's rollout hasn't helped the state's standing with the U.S. Labor Department, which in July said Florida was failing federal standards by lagging on initial unemployment payments, taking too long to determine eligibility and not fully evaluating claims. At the time, DEO spokeswoman Jessica Sims blamed the aging computer network.

DEO initially thought the $63-million re-do had solved the problem. Two days after the website's unveiling, Sims called the debut a "success." But not long later, snags, freezes and error messages showed up. Deloitte Consulting, which developed the site, has had similar problems in California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports.

"DEO sincerely regrets any delays or frustration experienced by claimants and we are working around-the-clock with program experts from (project contractor) Deloitte to fix technical problems as they arise," department officials told the Tampa Bay Times in an email last week.

Florida's unemployed deserve better.

Gov. Scott says he wants to run the state like a business. At the moment, the business needs a sharper focus on customer service.

The governor should commit to giving people who do business with the state a functioning website and when all else fails, the option to "press zero and talk to an operator."

Many left frustrated with state unemployment benefits website

Miami Herald

By Michael Van Sickler and Britanny Alana Davis

Posted on Wednesday, 10.16.13

TALLAHASSEE -- The day after Florida launched a $63 million website to process unemployment benefits for thousands of residents, state officials sounded only positive notes.

Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Jessica Sims called the debut of the CONNECT site a success. It had processed about 50,000 claims in two days and workers fielded thousands of calls.

Yet it's not clear how the website is handling the demand of a system with 235,000 claimants. Sims said she didn't know how many people failed to file a claim or how many phone calls weren't picked up.

Context matters because a far different portrayal of CONNECT's debut was playing across social media and in claims offices across the state. Facebook and Twitter were filled with complaints about wait times, system crashes and error messages -- reviews echoing those that met the Oct. 1 debut of the Obamacare insurance exchange.

CONNECT is supposed to be a big upgrade over the old system, which was 30 years old and difficult to use. DEO officials are quick to point out that an extra 250 workers were enlisted to assist people with the new website.

Still, numerous anecdotes suggest that wasn't enough.

More than 100 people packed the unemployment office on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater Wednesday, with some complaining they had waited for more than an hour.

Michelle Mattock, 31, said she was laid off two weeks ago from her job as a certified nursing assistant and has tried since then to get benefits for herself and her 10-year-old son.

She was blocked from the benefits page on the state website. So she tried to get her questions answered by phone. No luck.

Finally, she went to the unemployment center, where a staffer redirected her back to a phone line. "It's hopeless," Mattock said, adding that she is out of money and has nothing to live on. "There are no answers. Ever."

It was more of the same in Tallahassee, where several people told the Times/Herald that they had been blocked as well.

"I don't know what's going on, but I need this money," said Germaine Mells, a 49-year-old former nurse. Mells said she spent four hours on a computer, but still hadn't managed to get her weekly claim of $87 processed so she could pay her electric bill.

An employee at the job center, followed by a security guard, told a reporter he was forbidden to talk to recipients.

"Miss, you can't talk to him," the security guard told one recipient during an interview, causing her to walk away.

The job center employee said Jim McShane, the CEO of Workforce Plus who oversees the job centers in Tallahassee, instructed them to forbid interviews.

"I didn't make that decision," McShane said later. "We're an open federal program so I don't know why they would do that."

McShane said there were several technical glitches on Tuesday when the site launched, and some had persisted. One major issue is that the CONNECT site wasn't recognizing Social Security numbers and PIN codes claimants need to log into the site.

Sims said since its launch, the website has not crashed, despite a phone recording from the state's 1-800 number late Tuesday and Facebook postings that said otherwise.

Problems were anticipated. In a letter sent to claimants two weeks ago, the DEO warned of long lines and extended wait times. The contractor of the CONNECT site, Deloitte, has had similar issues with unemployment system overhauls in Massachusetts and California.

Deloitte's contract with Florida, signed in 2011, shows it has been amended several times. The final rollout is 10 months later and $6.4 million more expensive than initially anticipated, the contract shows.

Sims said cost increases were a result of changes to the scope of work required from Deloitte. The delay, she added, came at no extra cost to taxpayers and was a result of a "corrective action plan." She did not specify why such a plan was needed.

The website underscores tension between the U.S. Labor Department and how Florida processes unemployment claims under Gov. Rick Scott.

Federal officials say Florida violated the civil rights of unemployed individuals because it required them to apply online for benefits.

Federal officials couldn't be reached because of the government shutdown.

Florida's new unemployment system still plagued by long waits, delayed claims

Tampa Bay Times

By: Brittany Alana Davis

Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013

With the rollout of Florida's new $63 million unemployment system entering its third week, it's still unclear how many claimants are having serious problems accessing their benefits.

Internet snags, clogged phone lines and packed unemployment offices seem par for the course for dozens of people who have contacted the Tampa Bay Times saying they are on track to miss a month of claims or more.

Florida'sDepartment of Economic Opportunity oversees the unemployment system and says it has 562 employees working overtime to address complaints and questions. Still, more than 1.1 million people have been disconnected from the phone helpline. At times, only one out of every 25 callers can reach a person.

Meanwhile, more than 5,600 people have contacted the department in writing and dozens more have flooded Gov. Rick Scott's email with complaints about the new system, known as CONNECT.

"There is absolutely no way to get through," said Julie Jared, 42, of Port Orange, who was laid off from a travel agency in September and is supposed to get $229 per week. "Even if you call every hour of every day there's no way to get your issue addressed."

Jessica Sims, a spokeswoman for Florida'sDepartment of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the unemployment system, said every claimant is important and the state is working with Deloitte -- the contractor behind the project -- to iron out the glitches. Thousands of claims are being processed per hour and benefits delayed or deleted due to technical errors will be backdated, she added.

The department touted the success of the revamp for a week before acknowledging that some claimants were erroneously blocked from entering the website or from claiming certain benefits.

"The Department of Economic Opportunity regrets any delays or frustration experienced by claimants," a media release said.

The situation highlights existing concerns from the U.S. Department of Labor about whether Florida is breaking federal law by only allowing people to file claims over the Internet.

It also raises questions about Deloitte, the New York-based company being paid $46 million for the state's revamp.

Deloitte led troubled overhauls of unemployment websites in California and Massachusetts and was fired in Miami-Dade County in 2009 partway through an $84 million contract to overhaul the district's computer system.

In June 2012, Florida looked like it was on a similar path, threatening to terminate its contract with Deloitte for a seeming inability to deliver on the system it promised.

Deloitte responded by switching its project manager and beefing up staff in Tallahassee.

The former system was so fragmented and at such a risk of failure, Sims said, the state didn't want to delay the new system by starting over.

Ultimately, Deloitte got $6.4 million more than originally negotiated for a project that took 10 months longer than estimated, contracts show.

Jessica Blume, a vice chairman for Deloitte, said in a prepared statement that the company has successfully completed thousands of projects around the country and prioritizes meeting the needs of people who rely on government for services.

"We care about our clients' success, and are committed to helping them improve the lives of the people they serve," she wrote.

Vanessa Giacoman, of Panorama Government Solutions, which provides independent expert witnesses in public contract disputes, said roughly 80 percent of government projects result in delays or budget overruns, due to a system that rewards the lowest bidder and encourages companies to cut corners.

But Deloitte's recent streak of glitchy software rollouts is out of the ordinary, she added.

Deloitte has paid out more than $100,000 to Florida political groups since 2000 and employs six lobbyists in Tallahassee, including Brian Ballard, who also represents U.S. Sugar and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Florida. Deloitte has nine state contracts worth a combined $475 million.

Read this original document at: http://www.billnelson.senate.gov/news/details.cfm?id=346969&

Copyright: (c) 2010 Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc.
Wordcount: 3051



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