10 News Investigators look into the state unemployment website 'Connect' after viewer complaints

1:27 AM, Dec 4, 2013   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida - The state of Florida has spent more than $60 million in taxpayer dollars on Connect, the new unemployment website. But some say "Connect" has cut them off and it won't be a happy holiday for many.

So the 10 News Investigators started looking into the Department of Economic Opportunity's newest website after viewers reported to our tip line that the state's new website was failing them.

Latesha Sumpter is a 10 News viewer who reached out to us after months of frustration. She says she's nine months pregnant, and right before the holidays the money is needed now more than ever.

"I'd be homeless right now if I was depending on unemployment because I've gotten nothing," she says. "I can't even get a person on the phone. I just get, 'Due to the high call volume try your call again later.'"

When we asked Latesha to log onto the website, she was unable to show us her claim.

"Inactive? I don't get why it's inactive," she said with a nervous laugh.

After discovering her account was inactive, Latesha says she was concerned. "I'm really worried now that I've been wiped from the system and I'm not going to receive anything."

The website is operated by the state's DEO and was a mandate handed to the agency by the Legislature this year.

But since its October 15 launch, the website, and the unemployed Floridians who need their benefits, have been plagued with login problems.

We spoke with DEO's director, Jesse Penuccio, who says the agency has finally fixed many of its website issues. But even adding hours to their call center hasn't been enough for some of the unemployed this holiday season.

In a phone interview, Noah Pransky asks Panuccio, "Was the state prepared for this switch on October 15?"

Panuccio replies, after a few seconds of silence, "The system was rigorously tested before it was implemented."

John Whiteside came to us after his wife, who works for 10 News, heard the Investigators were looking into problems with unemployment benefits.

"It just puts you in a vicious circle where nothing seems to ever get processed, they just say it's still pending," he says.

John tells us he has been managing this holiday season without getting a response from the DEO by depleting savings and running up credit card bills.

John had troubles ever since the system launched in October and went weeks without getting any answers or benefits.

When he logged onto the website for us, he too could not show us anything about his claim.

John read us the dreaded message on the Connect screen he has encountered before. "It says, 'Error: the system has experienced unexpected technical error. Please close your Internet browser and the reopen it.'"

Panuccio tells us the process is getting better every day and tens of thousands of the unemployed now have access to the new, improved website. 

"We ask for patience and we want to make sure the public knows and every claimant knows that every claim is important and we're going to work and continue to work around the clock until we get to every single one."

Shortly after our interview, John Whiteside, who was looking for help after he lost his job, finally got months of benefits deposited into his account. 

John's advice? Be as persistent as possible.

However, that's not the kind of advice you want to hear after the state spent $60 million to make the switch nearly two months ago.

We asked the DEO to provide us with numbers of people who were not able to get benefits, but they wouldn't tell us how many other needy Floridians have reported problems.

This story came to us via viewer tip. If you've got a great story idea, email TIPS@WTSP.COM.

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