By John Haughey | The Center Square
Florida has seen new unemployment assistance claims spike from 26,599 on Jan. 21 to 71,046 reported last Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) has attributed a significant, but undetermined, component of that surge to fraud.
Last week, the DEO announced it had deployed “additional fraud-detection software” on a mobile app that all new claimants must now use to file unemployment assistance applications.
“If you are a new claimant applying for Reemployment Assistance benefits, DEO has expanded its partnership with ID.me to provide additional security measures to submit a claim,” DEO tweeted on Friday, referring questions to the company’s site.
According to DOL’s February 4 report, Florida's unemployment totals are at their highest levels since August for the second straight week, climbing from 62,818 on Jan. 28 to 71,046 on last Thursday.
The last week of January's relatively modest gain in unemployment applications was preceded by a huge surge the previous week when the tally increased from 39,226 to 57,824. The week before, filings had increased from 26,599 to 39,226.
Since the March emergence of the pandemic, Florida has paid $21.6 billion in assistance to about 2.2 million claimants, according to the DEO.
DEO spokesperson Emilie Oglesby said the state is investigating the extent of fraud, which is undetermined, the Miami Herald reported.
“The state takes this very seriously,” Oglesby said. “We have noticed a significant increase in the number of new claims over the past couple weeks.”
The increase in applications and imposition of new fraud detection protocols will not affect current recipients’ payments, she said, although all will need to re-certify their eligibility every two weeks through the bolstered mobile app.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who hosts a virtual town hall every Friday to help Floridians access the state’s CONNECT unemployment system, told the Miami Herald that she wouldn’t be surprised if fraud is eating a sizable amount of money in the state’s unemployment assistance trust fund.
“It’s definitely a reflection of how broken the system is,” she said.
Florida’s $275 maximum weekly payout is among the nation’s lowest and its 12-week eligibility span is the shortest among all 50 states.
In March, Florida’s $77 million CONNECT unemployment website — after years of audits warning it was inadequate — collapsed when the state’s unemployment rate tripled to 12.9 percent, leaving hundreds of thousands of newly jobless waiting weeks for their first checks.
In June, U.S. Senate Democrats called Florida’s unemployment system’s performance “uniquely poor in its abject inability to assist millions of Florida residents who have applied for and continue to await unemployment benefits.”
Florida has spent more than $100 million to upgrade the system, which Gov. Ron DeSantis called the “the equivalent of throwing a jalopy into the Daytona 500,” by purchasing 72 servers, reassigning 2,000 state workers and contracting thousands of private call center employees to assist.
Eskamani has filed House Bill 207, which would funnel more money into improving CONNECT’s accessibility and performance and to expand benefits to a weekly maximum of $500 for up to 26 weeks.
State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, has introduced a companion Senate bill, Senate Bill 592, seeking to “modernize and revamp” Florida’s unemployment system.
HB 207 faces a tougher than usual route to getting on the floor with hearings required before four, rather than three committees.
SB 592 awaits hearings before three Senate panels but is unlikely to one — if it gets one at all — before the 60-day 2021 legislative session begins March 2.
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