TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Recent efforts to fix Florida’s troubled unemployment assistance system will cost the state almost $110 million, state contracts show, which also reveal how many calls went unanswered as desperate applicants tried unsuccessfully to file for benefits.
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That cost figure is on top of the original $66 million the state spent developing the system in 2014 under the guidance of then-Gov. Rick Scott.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity signed three contracts recently totaling almost $110 million that will fund remote call center support to address the surge in applicants reaching out to DEO -- and does not include costs the agency is incurring for other fixes such as technology upgrades.
The contracts also suggest the agency is struggling to keep up with the unprecedented demand in unemployment assistance following mass layoffs due to the coronavirus crisis.
On Monday, FDOE Executive Director Ken Lawson revealed that more than 500,000 unemployment assistance applications had been submitted. By Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that just this week alone, 255,755 claims had been filed -- including 12,000 paper applications.
For weeks, Spectrum News has been sharing the stories of Central Floridians struggling to apply for benefits, running into one tech problem after another. Frustrated callers have waited hours on hold or have been unable to get through to the state’s call center altogether.
Figures included in the recently signed contracts also reveal that of 1.1 million calls to FDEO's call center since the week ending March 7, 85% did not even go through.
Since the week ending March 7, FDEO received 1.1 million calls into the center. Agents handled just 43,058 calls, while 24,449 people hung up and/or abandoned a call that got through. But almost a million calls -- 934,393 -- were not even patched to the call center, the contracts show.
The average wait time was almost an hour and a half, with some telling Spectrum News they waited several hours on hold.
FDEO launched a new website this week in an effort to relieve the pressure on the state’s CONNECT unemployment application system, which was overloaded with demand. This week, Lawson and DeSantis said the agency had installed 72 new servers to increase capacity, reportedly allowing 120,000 active users on the site.
As of Friday, some tell Spectrum News they are still having trouble with the system.
The agency also has not said when it believes it will be able to process all of the claims. The agency has also not said when it will be able to start distributed federal unemployment benefits from the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill, called the CARES Act.
Florida unemployment benefits provide for $275 per week for 12 weeks, while the federal legislation provides $600 per week for up to 16 weeks.
"Serving Floridians during this unprecedented economic and public health crisis is the number one priority of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity," the agency said in a statement to Spectrum News. "Governor Ron DeSantis signed Executive Order 20-93 providing the agency the ability to procure the additional capacity, software, technology, and/or other resources as needed to ensure the state’s reemployment assistance call center, website and staff can accommodate the increasing volume of applications and queries. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities Act, also known as the CARES Act, signed into law March 27, 2020 provides federal dollars to pay for the bulk of these needs."
As for the contracts, Florida's jobs agency signed contracts with Fanueil, Inc. of Hampton, Virginia; United Data Technologies of Miramar, Florida; and TelaForce LLC of South Walton Beach, Florida.
TelaForce’s contract is for no more than $79.9 million, in exchange for providing at least 1,000 call center agents and 33 supervisors. Fanueil’s contract is valued at $17.5 million for at least 250 call center agents, while United Data Technologies’ contract is for $12.3 million to also provide at least 250 call center agents.
"It is important to note that these contracts have been signed to allow the agency to increase and decrease staffing as quickly as possible to meet the needs of Floridians filing for Reemployment Assistance," the jobs agency said in a statement. "Contracts were signed for one year and allow the agency to adjust call agents as needed and the agency will only pay for the staffing that is utilized. We anticipate that we will not need to maximize these contracts to their full extent over the course of the life of the contract."