DEO requests $32.9 million to modernize unemployment website

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The state's unemployment crisis showed massive weaknesses within the system.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is requesting a modernization overhaul for its Reemployment Assistance website. The update comes with a price tag of $32.9 million, outside of the Bureau of Reemployment Assistance’s annual budget.

During a Pandemic Preparedness and Response committee meeting, Dane Eagle, Executive Director of the DEO, said the modernization project would improve system performance and make it more user-friendly.

Eagle said the wave of unemployment claims during the pandemic exposed cracks in an already weak system.

The current web-based unemployment system, called CONNECT, ran into delays and cost overruns during its deployment in 2013. As a result, a reduced scope solution was deployed. When hordes of Floridians flocked to the unemployment line at the beginning of the pandemic, the Connect system crumbled under the weight of tens of thousands of out-of-work residents attempting to file for claims online.

Eagle admitted the system still has many technical issues today.

“I like to think of that as we were issued an iPhone in 2013, we didn’t do the updates or bother to get a new iPhone so we’re still operating on older data,” said Eagle.

Prior to the pandemic, the DEO completed a self-assessment of the CONNECT system and identified the need for enhancements to the system. These modernization plans were interrupted by the pandemic. Attempts were made to modernize issues during the pandemic, but Eagle said a new system is needed.

Democrats in and out of the meeting said they predicted this system would not work long before the pandemic uncovered massive weaknesses.

“This Connect system is garbage and everyone has known that,” Sen. Randolph Bracy said.

“Ten years ago, when this system came online, the Democratic caucus stood up on two feet and very plainly said ‘this system was designed to fail.’ Unfortunately, it turns out that we were absolutely correct,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, the House minority co-leader in response to media questions earlier in the day.

Eagle laid out a roadmap for of improvements, the overarching concept being to switch to a cloud-based solution. Eagle said it would enable timely enhancements and allow for customization where needed.

The DEO is also requesting a FY2021-22 budget of $29 million, up from the Bureau of Reemployment Assistance’s current annual budget of about $12 million. Eagle said the budget increase is necessitated by the increase in unemployment claims due to the pandemic.

Eagle also praised DEO employees for working tirelessly during the state’s unemployment crisis.

“The fact that they were able to help as many Floridians as they did with a system that was not designed to do that. It was incredible,” Eagle said.

Eagle was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to executive director of the DEO last September after former executive director Ken Lawson stepped down, though DeSantis had sidelined Lawson in April.

Florida is not the only state to experience challenges, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, of the 24 states considered technically modernized, nearly a third are considering a re-modernization effort, and another third are engaged in remodernization.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown is a capitol reporter for FloridaPolitics.com. Her background includes covering the West Virginia Legislature for a regular segment on WVVA-TV in Bluefield called Capitol Beat. Her reporting in southern West Virginia also included city issues, natural disasters, crime, human interest, and anchoring weekend newscasts. Haley is a Florida native. You can reach her at [email protected]



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