‘Designed to fail’: How systematic failures led to Florida’s jobless benefits filing woes

ORLANDO, Fla. — For weeks, thousands of Central Floridians have been waiting for unemployment checks that were delayed or have yet to come at all, with some lawmakers blaming the issues on a system that was “designed to fail.”

"It's been 2 1/2 weeks since I filed. None of us has seen a penny,” said unemployed worker Alejandra Vega Mathieu.

"We’re running out of food right now, no money for medication, nothing,” said Rebecca Kempf, who also lost her job due to the pandemic.

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READ: Unemployment records show dropped calls, millions spent

They are two workers among thousands who were forced to wait a month, locked out, or in some cases denied unemployment benefits after losing their jobs.

In 2013, when Rick Scott was governor, the state spent $77 million on a new unemployment system for the Department of Economic Opportunity.

"There are probably several thousand instances of people still having various access problems,” Jesse Panuccio, then-head of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said in 2013.

Two years later, Panuccio was asked if he was happy with the system.

“Well, we always want to make the system better," he said.

READ: 5 weeks in Florida fails to fix unemployment

But the system didn't get better. Panuccio moved on to become a U.S. associate attorney general and Scott moved on to the U.S. Senate.

Since then, Floridians spent another $119 million to fix the system, and yet they are still facing technical difficulties that make it nearly impossible to use.

"When you go to the website it just keeps resetting your information," said Orlando resident Zeyad El Mashak.

Though issues with the system have been known for years, nothing has been done to fix it.

As recently as March 2019, a state audit found 17 problems, including data errors and poor documentation with the unemployment site.

“Basically building a system that was designed to fail," said U.S. Rep. Darren Soto.

READ: Coronavirus: Here’s how to apply for unemployment in Florida

Soto was in the Florida House when the system launched, and he was in the Florida Senate when complaints continued to roll in.

Now in Congress, he's watching the collapse of the website and the state being forced to turn to paper applications.

"Now that system that was designed to fail as a way to save money for the state is wreaking havoc on Floridians," he said.

Two other remnants of Florida's overhaul of the unemployment system are the $275-a-week payment, one of the lowest amounts in the nation, and the cap on benefits at just 12 weeks.

Those policies will remain unless lawmakers act.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.