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DEO knew Florida's failing unemployment website, CONNECT, had problems years before it launched

5:34 PM, Dec 22, 2013   |    comments
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TAMPA, Florida - The 10 News Investigators discovered Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity knew there could be problems with the state's failing unemployment website for years leading up to its embarrassing launch on October 15th.

The $60 million site, called "CONNECT," has halted much-needed payments to thousands of Floridians this holiday season.

But in June 2012, the DEO threatened to cancel its contract with contractor Deloitte because of repeated missed deadlines.  A letter from the state agency to the contractor indicated the "software development project (had) limited prospects of success."

Yet the DEO kept Deloitte in-place after renegotiating its contract.  Deloitte promised new managers and a new plan, while the state received $4.5 million in restitution.

However, when the site was launched on Oct. 15, 2013, the problematic website had disastrous effects.

Dozens of 10 News viewers - and thousands of Floridians - have reported struggles this holiday season because earned unemployment benefits aren't getting paid out.

Compounding the problems, federal emergency unemployment benefits are set to expire on Dec. 28.

The 10 News Investigators also confirmed Deloitte had problems with an unemployment website it created in Massachusetts. The company was fired in November after it failed to meet a series of deadlines, similar to Florida's.

"We asked about the issues that happened in Massachusetts and elsewhere and made sure that those same problems weren't going to manifest themselves here," said DEO Executive Director Jesse Panuccio.  "In hindsight, we would have liked to launch a site without issue."

The initial CONNECT website budget was a robust $68 million.  But after 2012's restitution payments, a $1.5 million concession in November 2013, and another $3.0 million on Friday, the final bill will be closer to $60 million.

Deloitte's most recent restitution concession comes after it failed to meet the state's "last chance" deadline for website fixes, Dec. 20.  The DEO also announced Friday plans to charge the contractor $15,000 a day in damages until the website's problems are all worked out.

"While Deloitte has made progress over the last few weeks and many claimants are able to process claims without incident," Panuccio said in a press release, "the bottom line is that the overall system is still not working properly and the base code has not been stabilized.  The people of Florida deserve better and after two months, Deloitte's failure to provide this functionality is simply unacceptable. They must and will be held accountable to the taxpayers of Florida."

DEO's press release explained deficiencies still exist in several program areas, specifically "functionality for the adjudication unit."  Some claims are flagged for potential ineligibility and go through adjudication. 

DEO claims that "even when a system is working at full functionality, it takes time to adjudicate claims and there is always an open caseload.  Despite DEO's increasing staff and working hours in the adjudication unit, the delays engendered by the defects in adjudication functionality have caused the active adjudication caseload-and the wait times for adjudication-to increase to unacceptable levels."

Many viewers have e-mailed and called the 10 News tipline saying restitution payments are a good start, but they are little consolation for the troubles the website has already caused their families.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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