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Florida's DEO admits ongoing issues with unemployment benefits website

An expensive government website that failed to launch properly, despite years of preparation. Frustrated users who will be penalized if they can't log on in time. Questions about how transparent those responsible for the website are.

No, this isn’t the troubled debut of the site that is dominating cable news these days.

It’s Gov. Rick Scott’s roll out of Florida’s new $63 million unemployment benefits website. Launched last week and initially called a success by a Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman, it’s becoming increasingly evident that it’s having Obamacare-esque problems of its own.

On Wednesday, the Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the state’s processing of claims for an average of 235,000 recipients, issued its most detailed acknowledgment yet that all is not well with the new website.

“Last week, the new system, CONNECT, was launched, and while tens of thousands of claims are being properly processed within the new system, the initial phase of the update has also caused delays for many users,” said an e-mail from the DEO late Wednesday. “DEO sincerely regrets any delays or frustration experienced by claimants and we are working around-the-clock with program experts from (project contractor) Deloitte to fix technical problems as they arise.”

No numbers are kept on just how many people have tried and failed to process their claims, so it’s not clear what to make of the 130,000 people who did submit claims in the past seven days, according to the DEO. Before the launch, the state didn’t process any claims between Oct. 9 and Oct. 14. Since claims are typically processed every two weeks, shouldn’t that number be higher? Officials aren’t providing much context these days, and have done much to confuse the media by not releasing all relevant information.

But on Wednesday, the DEO announced that it is expanding hours this week at the call centers, where they have 250 employees manning the phones for people unable to get through on the web. The DEO is adding 15 hours per week so it will now be operational from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. M-F, and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. The call center will also now be working on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The expansion is necessary considering the volume.

DEO Spokeswoman Jessica Sims said that between Tuesday and Saturday of last week, 1,124,350 calls were made to the state’s 1-800 help line. Of those calls, 47,619 were handled by an operator, a rate of about 4.2 percent.

True, some of those calling might have had their questions answered by automated messages in the menu. Or, as Sims pointed out, calls made include “repeat dialing by single caller.”

Lee Phelps of Tampa is one of those repeat dialers. Why does he keep calling back?

Because, he says in an email, he has yet to get his claim for benefits processed on the new website or talk to a human being.

“Today is the fifth day that I have been unable to talk to anyone or even get through the phone line,” Phelps said. “Though once I was put on automated hold for 30 minutes then dropped.”