Suit Over Florida Unemployment Website Woes Tossed

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (CN) — A Florida judge threw out a lawsuit challenging the state’s broken unemployment system on Wednesday, even as half a million claims remain unpaid.

Attorneys representing unemployed Floridians sought to force state officials to fix its faulty unemployment benefit website immediately and pay all outstanding unemployment claims within seven days. The potential class action was filed April 24 against Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The ruling from Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey in Tallahassee leaves thousands of Florida’s unemployed in limbo, some of whom have not received unemployment benefits since the Covid-19 pandemic decimated businesses in the state.

For weeks, Florida’s unemployment system has struggled to meet the demand of claims as thousands a day began filing claims, leading to nearly constant crashes of the Connect website. By mid-April, the agency had only processed 4% of claims, sparking outrage around the state.

DeSantis removed the head of the Department of Economic Opportunity, Ken Lawson, from overseeing the system and poured millions of dollars into extra servers and call center employees.

The agency has now processed more than 47% of claims, but many unemployed Floridians have not yet received a check. Others say they were wrongly deemed ineligible for benefits.

“It’s been seven weeks and I’ve got zero dollars for unemployment,” said Mike Latner, one of the plaintiffs in the dismissed lawsuit. “We had to use all the savings we had to just survive for a couple months and now I’m done. I don’t have anything else. When the food runs out, that’s it.”

Latner, 44, was laid off from his job as a cook on March 20 and filed for unemployment benefits two days later. When he checked on his application later in the week, it was deleted, he said. For weeks, Latner tried logging into the site and calling the Department of Economic Opportunity to no avail.

“I spent a full-time job just trying to get unemployment,” he said.

After submitting another application on April 12, he said the DEO deemed him ineligible for not working in 2019. But Latner said he has been working at the same restaurant for two and a half years.

According to state data, the Department of Economic Opportunity approved only 60% of applications between May 13 and April 28.

On May 2, a week after joining the lawsuit, the DEO approved his benefits: $125.

He has yet to receive a check.

Unemployed Floridians can receive up to $275 each week for a maximum of 12 weeks — one of the lowest benefits in the country.

“This system has been broken for a long, long time,” Latner said. “This being brought to light and all the problems with it really came from all the people that’s never had to use this system and believed in the current administration and the last administration. They are really starting to see these guys didn’t give a shit.

Latner’s experience applying for benefits is not unique.

Ariel Fernandez-Diaz, a DJ and band promoter from Miami, encountered similar problems with the state’s Connect website.

“You can go on at midnight, you can go on at 4 a.m., you can go at noon … it crashes every time,” he said. 

Exasperated, Fernandez-Diaz filled out a paper application and mailed it in. He was denied.

When the federal government rolled out the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which pays benefits to people not eligible for state unemployment benefits, Fernandez-Diaz thought he could receive those funds. But the DEO instructed those deemed ineligible to reapply for state benefits first, receive another denial and then apply for the federal assistance.

When Fernandez-Diaz attempted to reapply, the system continued to crash.

“The system is set up to make you quit and that’s not right,” Fernandez-Diaz said. “I haven’t got a penny in my bank account since March 13.”

Earlier this week, the governor directed the state’s inspector general to investigate the faulty website, which he called “convoluted” and “a clunker.”

The state paid Deloitte Consulting nearly $78 million to create the site, which debuted in 2013 under then-Governor Rick Scott, now the state’s junior U.S. senator. Audits in 2015, 2016 and 2019 reveal systematic problems with the unemployment site.

During Wednesday’s court proceedings, attorneys for the state defended DeSantis and Department of Economic Opportunity.

“The unemployment system we inherited was not ready for the unprecedented amount of unemployment claims we have,” said James Uthmeier, representing the governor. “We understand people are hurting. We’re working as hard as we can.”

Uthmeier told the judge that Florida law does not have specific requirements on how the state must implement unemployment benefits or how quickly to disburse them.

“There are both state laws and federal laws that are imposed on the state employees to ensure that these applications go through the review process,” he said. “These checks are not just going to fly out the door.”

The judge agreed.

“I just don’t have the authority to change the statute or create a whole new pay and chase system that the plaintiffs’ are asking,” Dempsey said in her ruling.

Marie Maddox, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, said she may appeal or focus on a companion lawsuit that names Deloitte Consulting as a defendant along with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

She plans to file an emergency motion for injunctive relief Wednesday night.

“These people need help now,” she said.

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