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Judge denies request to force Florida to speed up unemployment payments

The judge was asked to determine if the state has to fix issues and get unemployment payments out faster.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A judge on Thursday denied the request for a temporary injunction that would have forced the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to quickly fix system problems and get unemployment payments out faster.

The state argued the judge didn't have the authority to do that because of sovereign immunity, a protection that excepts the government from being sued without its consent.

On Thursday before making his decision, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper talked in length about the separation of powers and branches of government. Ultimately, he decided he could not make the state rush out payments and fix the system because he doesn't have the power do to so.

Judge Cooper also wasn't sure it was even possible to mandate the state to fix the system and send out payments any faster than they are now.

DEO Chief Financial Officer Damon Steffens testified the state has made improvements to its servers to better process claims and has hired thousands of more people to take calls. 

Attorneys representing unemployed Floridians argued the state knew about problems plaguing the unemployment system for years but failed to fix them, even after such issues were detailed in several audits well before the coronavirus pandemic.

RELATED: 2019 audit revealed major problems with Florida unemployment system

On Tuesday, Judge Cooper listened to person after person describe his or her experiences with the DEO and the failing unemployment system.

RELATED: Will a judge be able to force Florida to speed up unemployment fixes, payments of benefits?

Stories of crashing websites, error messages and unpaid benefits filled the seven-hour hearing, which was originally scheduled to last just three hours.

The hearing was held virtually because of the pandemic.

Gov. Ron DeSantis called for an investigation to determine how the state spent $77 million on an unemployment system that failed when people needed it most. Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel is conducting that investigation. 

10 Tampa Bay discovered problems with Florida's unemployment system seven years ago when the CONNECT site launched. In 2013, people complained of system failures, technological glitches and hours spent trying to talk to someone on the phone at the Department of Economic Opportunity.

RELATED: Florida's unemployment failures date back to 2013

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, local representatives are trying to offer an outlet for unemployed Floridians by taking names directly to the DEO. In some cases, lawmakers can go around the system and expedite payments.

State Rep. Wengay Newton, who represents parts of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties, has been sending out a weekly newsletter directing people to contact his office if they're having problems collecting unemployment benefits.

RELATED: Florida lawmakers urging people to stay persistent in collecting unemployment money

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