TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Floridians continue to report problems with the state’s 2-year-old unemployment benefits website, according to lawmakers. Gov. Rick Scott’s jobs chief has maintained that it’s also threatened by fraud.READ MORE: Cold Snap Coming To South Florida, Feeling The 30s This Weekend
Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said every lawmaker on his subcommittee has constituents who have faced difficulties accessing the Department of Economic Opportunity’s $77 million Connect system, which was rolled out to much criticism in October 2013.
Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, said she still gets calls from people unable to get into the jobless website. Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the state Department of Economic Opportunity, has been Scott’s point person on the issue.
“I know in my own office the problems and the numbers and I’m prepared to discuss that with Mr. Panuccio — and I have before and he’s been very responsive — but it’s gotten worse,” Sachs said.
The continued criticism of the website came as Latvala called Panuccio arrogant, displaying a “sense of entitlement,” because of the way the agency head dismissed Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin’s assertion that Florida may be purposely last in the nation in paying unemployment claims.
Latvala, who has sparred with Panuccio on a number of issues during the past couple of years, didn’t defend Templin’s claims, but took issue with the manner in which a speaker before his subcommittee was addressed by another speaker.
“I frankly don’t like your attitude,” Latvala told Panuccio. “I think that there is an arrogance in the way you present this that’s a sense of entitlement. And I just think it’s wrong.”
Panuccio said he didn’t intend to attack any individual, maintained he disagreed with Templin and defended the work of the state agency in handling jobless claims.
“In many times when someone is saying ‘I can’t get on the system,’ it turns out it’s just not a valid claim under the law,” Panuccio said. “That happens. We work it, we get it done, and we move on.”
The state’s jobless mark stands at 5.3 percent, which indicates an estimated 507,000 unemployed Floridians out of a workforce of 9.5 million.
Templin pointed to a Sept. 22 report from the National Employment Law Project that found fewer than one in eight unemployed Floridians — 12 percent compared to 27 percent nationally — receive jobless aid. Templin said a big factor in the state’s overall declining jobless rate is that benefits “are no longer going out the door” to people who qualify.
“Your own economists have said we’re still 580,000 jobs short of where we need to be to reach pre-2008 levels,” Templin said. “The job picture has not increased that much.”READ MORE: Twists In Search For New Broward Schools Superintendent
Templin added that it appears the state is going beyond a 2011 unemployment law that raised new barriers for eligibility and cut back on the number of weeks of compensation.
“Our concern is that you have a state agency, and perhaps Connect and the system itself, going above and beyond what the Legislature intended and is making it really hard for workers to get benefits,” Templin said. “My personal concern is that is by design.”
Panuccio, who earlier gave the subcommittee an overview of the state’s reemployment program, with a focus on private-sector job gains and a declining unemployment rate over the past four years, described Templin’s comments as “not valid” and the statistics by the National Employment Law Project as “specious.”
“A lot of it is not rooted in fact,” Panuccio said. “It is not really about the system. The AFL-CIO does not like the law we have on unemployment in this state. But that law was passed by a majority of this Legislature, and this AFL-CIO doesn’t want to admit that we have a nation-leading turnaround that is outpacing those of others states. So of course we have less claims.”
Asked if the 2011 law should be revisited, Panuccio said the state should “stay the course.”
On Tuesday, Panuccio asked lawmakers to set aside $3.5 million to help weed out growing organized fraud in the unemployment-assistance system. Part of the money, about $550,000, would be used to set up a crime-fighting unit focused on fraud.
Panuccio said a request may also be made for legislation to make criminal charges more severe for people engaged in fraud.
On Wednesday, Panuccio said the agency — working with state and federal prosecutors — identified roughly 70,000 fraudulent claims for jobless benefits in 2014, when 653,359 claims were submitted.
“What we are seeing, in our estimation, is an astounding rate of fraudulent claim activity,” Panuccio said. “Imagine if one of every 10 charges on a Visa card was fraudulent, wasn’t made by the card holder? One of every 10. That’s what we’re facing in unemployment. That’s why we’re calling this a crisis.”
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she didn’t see the fraud as the “crisis” described by Panuccio and wondered if the cases couldn’t be handled by existing law enforcement.
“I’m personally not interested in growing government to deal with a 12 percent problem unless our 12 percent problem is way higher than other states,” Detert said.
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(The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.)