Florida’s economic opportunity chief resigns amid jobs woes

Author: BOBBY CAINA CALVAN Associated Press
Credit: WINK News

Florida’s director of economic opportunity resigned Monday, months after being stripped of his oversight of the state’s glitch-ridden unemployment system, which left hundreds of thousands of people waiting weeks – and sometimes months – for benefits after losing their jobs during the coronavirus outbreak.

Ken Lawson said in his resignation letter that he was leaving his post “in the spirit of turning the page and moving forward.”

Florida’s balky unemployment system was among the slowest in the country to respond to the surge in unemployment as the pandemic sidelined key sectors of the state’s economy, including bars, restaurants and huge swaths of the tourist industry.

The number of unemployed overwhelmed the state’s benefits system, preventing many applicants from filing claims online because of glitch-ridden servers and phone lines. The debacle prompted widespread complaints and put Gov. Ron DeSantis under political duress.

With public anger welling, Gov. Ron DeSantis yanked Lawson from his oversight role in April. Lawson remained as director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, but management of the unemployment system was given to Department of Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter.

Shortly before the leadership shakeup, Lawson had publicly apologized for the distress the problems caused the newly unemployed. “From my heart, I apologize for what you’re going through,” he said then.

DeSantis said he would announce a replacement as soon as Tuesday. During a press availability Monday, the governor said he appointed Satter to oversee the unemployment system “because we obviously were having major issues.”

“It wasn’t being moved along the way we wanted it,” he said. “There’s some things that need to change in that agency.”

Florida’s unemployment system became fodder for state and national Democrats, who pushed for investigations into the failures, including an explanation of why the state could not deliver timely benefits.

DeSantis has acknowledged that his state’s unemployment system is broken and ordered his own investigators to look into the system’s failures. At one point, DeSantis likened the state’s unemployment system, known as CONNECT, to a “jalopy in the Daytona 500” being “left in the dust.”

Democrats and Republicans alike have acknowledged that the problems with the CONNECT system predated the pandemic. The outbreak had caused the state’s unemployment rate to spike to 13.8% in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 4.4% the month before.

In fact, state audits found repeated failures in the system, which the governor has acknowledged was not designed to be able to handle the surge in claims.

In December 2018, a month before DeSantis was sworn in, Lawson, then president of Visit Florida, warned the governor’s transition team about grave deficiencies in the state’s unemployment compensation portal. The memo noted that the state’s reemployment system “may struggle in the event claims volume increases in the future.”

“To his credit, he submitted a memo to the governor even before the governor got sworn in,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, adding that addressing the deficiencies “was not a priority of the DeSantis administration.”

The governor’s office has said that it was not aware of the “extraordinary deficiencies” and could not have foreseen the coming meltdown.

Tonya Olson, a physical therapist in St. Petersburg who waited three months for her first unemployment check, said Lawson was made to be a scapegoat and was one of the few who actually seemed to care.

“He’s the only person that I’ve seen who’s gone on record to apologize, take responsibility, and pledge to fix CONNECT and get people paid,” she said.

DeSantis has begun reopening much of Florida’s economy, allowing some Floridians to return to work even as the state continues to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since March 15, the department said it has processed nearly 3.7 million claims — paying out $14.6 billion in benefits to more than 1.9 million claimants. Much of that money — $11.5 billion — came from the federal government.

Under pressure, the governor ordered the department to install additional servers and to hire hundreds of temporary staffers to accommodate the deluge of calls.

With the state’s unemployment rate in July at 11.3%, more than 1.1 million Floridians remain out of work and the system continues straining to keep up.

“To this day we see new unemployment claims come our way, including from Floridians who haven’t seen a dime and others who are missing weeks of back pay. We need to completely dismantle and rebuild DEO with new people and policies,” said state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani.

Florida Democrats, who have been releasing a daily tally of those waiting for benefits, say the DeSantis has not fully resolved problems. According to state Senate Democrats, 1.7 million Floridians are waiting for benefits.

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