Florida Senate Democrats voiced their outrage Monday over the Governor’s handling of the unemployment system that is still causing his administration problems after a month and a half of headache and hardship for Floridians.
Moments before Democrats held their telephonic press conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis wrapped up a debrief of the CONNECT system saga, but gave little direction on additional steps the state would take to benefit Floridians. The two next steps he listed: continue processing new unique claims as quickly as possible and get Floridians back to work under his reopening plan.
Senate Democratic Leader-Designate Gary Farmer led the call between members of his caucus and reporters, pointing blame at the Governor where he minutes before had deflected onto Ken Lawson, director of the Department of Economic Opportunity.
“Almost every aspect of this system has been flawed and fraught with delays and ineptitude, malfeasance, technical glitches, whatever the issue may be,” Farmer said. “We just feel like it is unacceptable that more than 60 days into this pandemic and the tremendous loss of jobs that has occurred around this state that we still don’t have concrete answers from this Governor.”
And while Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat, conceded not all of the problems originated since DeSantis’ election, the debacle played out under his watch.
“What we heard from the Governor was frankly politics,” Rodríguez said. “He’s deflecting, trying to make it sound like he’s not responsible for the awful system we have post-2018 and especially in the last two months.”
The Governor’s Office has been “slow and confusing” in handling the unemployment claims, he added.
“They’ve killed so much time just with their, frankly, ineptitude,” Rodríguez said. “To use a reference from the ’20s, it’s like the Keystone Cops.”
And while Farmer said Democrats wish they could help their constituents, without a Special Session, the Legislature — let alone the minority party — can’t lend a hand to the problem within an executive department. Sen. Annette Taddeo, also of Miami, shared the sentiment.
“We feel helpless because we’re having to deal with an administration that’s not being helpful,” she said. “People just need their damned checks — that simple.”
Lantana Democratic Sen. Lori Berman and others said DeSantis insufficiently answered their inquiries and the direction the state would take to redress CONNECT’s failures.
“We thought that the Governor would give us some answers,” she said. “When is everything going to be done? We need answers. We don’t need to have reports just on what happened in the past. We need answers for people to know.”
DeSantis also announced that he had asked Inspector General Melinda Miguel to investigate the state’s spending and contracts with Deloitte, responsible for the 2013 launch.
“While that is all fine and good, the time has come for more action than we have seen from this Governor,” Farmer said.
With waivers easing the unemployment claims application process expiring this week, DeSantis again punted on answering whether that DEO would extend the rule suspensions. For Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which did not reopen with the rest of the state Monday, Floridians need to know whether they need to somehow look for work, said Rodríguez and Taddeo.
Several states have faced challenges with their unemployment portals, but Florida ranked the worst in paying out claims to its unemployed residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent study. Taddeo said the fact other states have faced unemployment problems is not an excuse for DeSantis.
“Don’t give me the crap about other states and nobody could have seen all this coming and all this stuff. Just look around,” she said. “Yes, were there troubles in other states? Yes, but nothing like Florida.”
The hoops put in place for applicants to receive unemployment was designed to deter and detect fraudulent applications. But at a time when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Floridians are likely filing legitimate claims, the stress is not only on the system, but the state’s unemployed, said Sen. Janet Cruz.
“This system operates under the premise that every person applying is a cheater or a fraud, and this is enough already,” the Tampa Democrat said. “These people need to be paid.”
“The bottom line is Floridians are suffering,” Farmer said. “Floridians are calling our offices, they’re calling the Governor, they’re imploring us to fix this system. They are in tears when they call our offices. They are angry and yelling because they’re frustrated, and they’re scared. They are afraid for how they are going to provide for their families.”