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State officials credit troubled CONNECT for drop in claims (really)

TALLAHASSEE — State officials who prematurely celebrated a new unemployment benefits website are claiming now that the defects that kept thousands of Floridians from getting benefits since October are mostly fixed.

Officials with Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Economic Opportunity who oversee the CONNECT project say the number of jobless claims stuck in the system for more than a week dropped from more than 58,000 to fewer than 5,000 last month.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said CONNECT project manager Tom McCullion this week. "We're just in a phenomenal position today serving our claimants."

Yet most of the improvement has nothing to do with DEO, said Alí R. Bustamante, a professor at Florida International University's center for labor research.

Starting Jan. 1, 73,000 Floridians lost their federal long-term unemployment benefits when Congress didn't renew the program. That, combined with a reduction of state benefits, wiped away 17 weeks of unemployment eligibility practically overnight, hitting Florida especially hard because it leads the nation in long-term unemployment.

"That accounts for the drop," Bustamante said. "There was a lot of confusion last month, and a lot of people didn't know what the limit for unemployment compensation was. They know now, so they aren't filing claims. So, from the system's standpoint, it really helped that these claims just went away."

DEO officials, however, appear eager to take full credit.

Read story here.