A Florida lawmaker is demanding an investigation into the state’s unemployment benefits website, which an adviser to current Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis claims was deliberately designed by the prior GOP administration to block applicants, Politico reported.
As thousands of newly unemployed Floridians were unable to obtain benefits in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — because the cumbersome and overwhelmed web application system was constantly freezing up — the DeSantis adviser laid the blame on former GOP Gov. Rick Scott.
“It’s a shit sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott,” the unnamed adviser told Politico. “It wasn’t about saving money. It was about making it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low to give the governor something to brag about.”
The adviser added: “Everyone we talk to in that office when we ask them what happened tells us: ‘The system was designed to fail.’ That’s not a problem when unemployment is 2.8 percent, but it’s a problem now.”
Scott spokesman Chris Hartline told Politico that the former governor took action to ensure that the state helped only those “who truly needed the assistance.”
Republican state Rep. Jackie Toledo called for an investigation in a letter Friday to the Florida legislature’s bipartisan auditing committee.
“Despite using $77 million of taxpayers dollars, the DEO [Department of Economic Opportunity] website has been unprepared to handle citizen applications for the several years that it has been active, leaving Floridians without sustenance in a time of crisis,” she wrote. Toledo said problems with the site have been know since 2015.
Tampa Democratic state Sen. Janet Cruz called for the resignation of the head of the DEO on Thursday because of the massive problems.
Florida’s 6,256 jobless claims the week ending March 14 surged to 152,687 last week, reported the Orlando Sentinel.
DeSantis signed an executive order on Thursday in a bid to improve the situation by instituting paper applications, creating a mobile app, and boosting the number of staffers to deal with the mammoth boost in applications for benefits.
But even with changes intended to ease the process, most Floridians who submit applications likely won’t qualify for aid, according to Politico. And the maximum state benefits are only $275 a week, among the lowest in the nation.
Florida’s controversial online system was launched in 2013 after a 2011 unemployment law increased barriers for eligibility and cut the number of weeks of unemployment benefits from 26 to 12. The state legislature estimated that the changes would save businesses more than $2.3 billion in unemployment payments to 2020.
Miami Democratic state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez agreed that Scott is “the most culpable … for the failed system.” But he also told Politico: “I don’t know of any Republican who resisted these efforts to make Florida the most Scrooge-like state in the nation.”
For his part, DeSantis finally instituted a statewide stay-at-home order on Wednesday that took effect Thursday, saying he had been waiting for a White House recommendation to do so (which never came). He undercut the order by exempting religious services, including mass gatherings at evangelical megachurches. DeSantis was criticized for his delay cracking down on spring-breakers mobbing Florida beaches last month.