TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — A Florida judge declined Thursday to order a fix for the state’s unemployment system woes, even as hundreds of thousands of residents continue to file claims each week.
Tallahassee attorneys Marie Maddox and Gautier Kitchen, representing thousands of claimants, brought a class action earlier this month to force the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to fix its faulty unemployment benefit website and pay all outstanding jobless claims.
But Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper said Florida law and the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine prevents him from usurping the agency’s processing of unemployment benefits claims.
“I can’t tell the governor what to do most of the time, and he can’t tell me what to do most of the time,” the Tallahassee judge said Thursday.
The ruling by Cooper leaves thousands of jobless Floridians in limbo, some of whom have not received unemployment benefits since the Covid-19 pandemic obliterated businesses in the state.
Florida has record unemployment, according to a DEO report released last week, with 1.2 million people losing jobs in March and April.
The Sunshine State’s unemployment system has struggled to meet the demand as thousands of people a day file claims, leading to nearly constant crashes of the system’s website. By mid-April, the agency had only processed 4% of claims, sparking outrage around the state.
In response, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis removed the head of the DEO, Ken Lawson, from overseeing the system and poured hundreds of millions of dollars into extra servers and call center employees.
The agency has now processed 83% of claims, but many unemployed Floridians have not yet received a check. Others say they were wrongly deemed ineligible for benefits.
Thursday’s proceedings were a continuation of a hearing on Tuesday, when he heard from more than a dozen unemployed Floridians.
The witnesses spoke of constant website crashes, confusing instructions from state call center employees and wrongly denied claims.
In some cases, claimants appealed the decisions, but the DEO did not respond to the appeals within the statutory 60-day deadline, which rendered the appeals moot and the claimants without a check.
“These people have not had food for themselves or their children,” Maddox said in her closing arguments. “They don’t have the money for medications. They face evictions. They could become homeless.”
“What do they do instead of coming before the court and say, ‘Make them do their job,’” she said.
Before closing arguments, a former call center employee testified he was not given the tools to help unemployed people who called in.
“Our job was really to placate people,” said Matthew Beggarly, who worked for a DEO call center through a contractor. “Do as little as we could, just so people felt warm and fuzzy.”
Beggarly said he became frustrated and sent an email to his supervisors asking, “Are we being paid to process claims or lie to them?” He said he was fired within 24 hours of the email.
Beggarly also said a representative of DEO told him over a million paper applications for unemployment sat in a trailer parked in front of the agency’s headquarters in Tallahassee at the end of April.
The judge rejected the claim as hearsay.
Daniel Nordby, representing the DEO, acknowledged problems with the unemployment system, but said the agency is handling an unprecedented number of claims.
“Of course, the DEO has sympathy for anyone is who out of work and not received benefits,” Nordby said.
But the attorney maintained the agency has state and federal guidelines to adhere to.
“We cannot issue payments to everyone without going through the legal process to determine eligibility,” he said.
Earlier this month, the governor directed the state’s inspector general to investigate the faulty website, which he called “convoluted” and “a clunker.”
Audits in recent years have revealed systematic problems with the site.
The state contracted with Deloitte Consulting to create the site, which debuted in 2013 under then-Governor Rick Scott, now the state’s junior U.S. senator.
Deloitte Consulting was also named in the suit, but did not participate in the injunction proceedings. In an email, managing director Jonathan Gandal defended the company’s work and laid blame on the state.
“We built the CONNECT system to comply with Florida’s specific requirements and the state accepted the system,” Gandal said. “When we completed our work in 2015, CONNECT was vastly outperforming the systems it replaced and accurately processing reemployment assistance claims faster than ever before. All IT systems require ongoing maintenance, and since Deloitte has not worked on CONNECT in five years, we do not know how, or even if, the technology has been maintained.”
In comments before his denial of an injunction, Cooper sympathized with the unemployed and said some of them emailed him directly about their individual circumstances.
“I’ve seen horrible economic conditions,” the judge said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Cooper said if the governor did not act, he could imagine issuing an injunction, but the DEO has attempted to handle the unprecedented number of claims and waived many prior requirements such as documenting job searches.
“It’s at best, a work of progress,” Cooper said. “I agree -- there’s still a problem, and it’s affecting a lot of people and it’s not their fault.”
“[The unemployed] and their attorneys look to me to provide relief,” he added. “It’s not that I don’t want to give relief, it’s whether I can provide relief.”
Cooper seemed to talk directly to claimants, several of whom were listening to the hearing via Zoom, saying his comments were “a civic lesson” and explained in detail the constraints of the judiciary in relation to the executive and legislative branches of government.
“The law in Florida is, without a shadow of a doubt, clear that the court cannot tell state agencies how to do their business,” he said. “The court does not have the power to do that. The power to do that is voting.”
After the decision, the plaintiffs’ attorneys suggested the judge should ask the DEO to go through each of their clients and pay out claims on a case-by-case basis. Cooper said he could consider an order for mediation between the parties.
Although the judge rejected the injunction, he did not dismiss the case, as requested by the state.
“All the rest of the case is still there,” Cooper said. “This is a serious issue.”
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