79ºF

Florida signs $119M in contracts to fix troubled unemployment website, call center amid coronavirus fallout

Costs cover thousands of new call takers, new mobile site, servers

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which operates the state’s unemployment benefits system, has signed contracts totaling $119 million in a three-week period attempting to handle the influx of coronavirus unemployment-related calls and applications, department spending shows.

News 6 submitted a public records request for recent spending since Florida’s unemployment rate spiked in March due to coronavirus closures and furloughs. By April 3, the department spent $25 million in two weeks on contracts for call center services, computers and phone systems.

As of Monday morning, the department has spent $119.1 million since March 28 to massively increase its call center capacity, develop a mobile-friendly application site, purchase computer hardware and software and buy data management software, among other services.

More than $100 million of that spending was split between several large contracts for call center services.

The DEO has been able to answer about 2% of calls, with an average wait time of 400 minutes, the contracts show. For example, out of more than 864,000 calls into the DEO for the week of March 28, more than 781,000 calls were abandoned by the caller or blocked by the overloaded system.

[RELATED: Filing for unemployment? 6 things experts say you should know]

On April 6, the DEO entered a $79.9 million contract with TelaForce (Titan Technologies) to receive and process overflow calls for the DEO workforce services. According to the agreement, the Walton Beach-based contractor will provide up to 2,000 additional staff members to answer calls, call people back and decrease wait times.

The state spent $12.3 million on April 8 on a 1-year contract with United Data Technologies, or UDT, to provide similar call services.

DEO executive director Ken Lawson signed a $17.5 million contract on March 29 with a Virginia-based firm that provides call center services.

Under the agreement, Faneuil, Inc. will receive and process overflow calls from the DEO’s existing reemployment assistance call centers.

The remaining $19 million was spent on computer hardware, software, app development, IT consultation and data management, records show.

Florida was processing about 2,500 first-time unemployment claims a week at the beginning of 2020. For the week ending on April 4, Florida posted 169,885 initial non-seasonally adjusted jobless claims, according to the Labor Department.

Over the past three weeks, more than 472,000 claims have been filed.

Those numbers are likely lower because many people reported they were unable to file online or get through to speak to the DEO call center.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state has allocated 2,000 state employees from other departments to process unemployment claims but it’s still unclear when those going on weeks without pay will see money from the state.

In a News 6/ClickOrlando.com Facebook poll asking people who have filed for unemployment if they have received any payments more than 280 commenters replied saying their applications were still pending and they had not received benefits. Only one person said they had received a $275 deposit since applying on March 20.

“My focus is lets get the checks out,” DeSantis said last week. “Start giving it, do the verification, and let’s get moving on it. I’m hoping they can do it as quickly as possible.”

[RELATED: Florida releases new mobile-friendly site to apply for unemployment benefits]

After creating a paper downloadable application, the DEO also launched a new mobile-friendly site but it doesn’t replace the old website. Applicants who used the original site will still need to use it to update applications and it is still used to process applications.

Most applicants reported a better experience and for the first time were able to file for unemployment using the new site last week.

The recent spending is more than twice what it cost in 2013 to create the DEO’s online reemployment assistance system, known as CONNECT. It cost $63 million to create the system under former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, records show.

The CONNECT site has gone down three times in the past week for maintenance “to process current applications quicker,” according to the DEO.

News 6 investigator Mike DeForest contributed to this report.

To keep up with the latest news on the pandemic, subscribe to News 6′s coronavirus newsletter or go to ClickOrlando.com/coronavirus.


About the Author: