TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's CONNECT unemployment system was not built to handle the flood of claims during the COVID-19 pandemic and needs $244 million over the next five years to fix the problems, Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle told the Florida State Senate’s Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response on Monday.

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That would include $73 million over the next two years to upgrade the DEO's IT system and move the unemployment benefit system to a cloud-based program, Eagle said. 

Eagle is also pushing for money to hire 435 new full-time employees who would be used for the next year or two to process complicated claims. 

In an appearance before the Florida Senate's Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness on Monday, Eagle acknowledged that the third-party call center agents brought in to help last year can't handle complicated claims.

Eagle's testimony followed the release by the Florida Dept. of Economic Opportunity of a more than 200-page independent audit Friday night on the unemployment system.

The audit will be used to urge state lawmakers to help fix the system. The annual Florida Legislative Session starts Tuesday, with no promises of any investments.

Eagle first told Spectrum News reporter Greg Angel about this audit during a November interview. This report is different from a separate report by the Florida Office of Inspector General, which DEO said could be released by the end of the month.

For months Spectrum News has investigated as hundreds of thousands of people struggled to apply, be approved for, and receive their unemployment benefits from the state. The CONNECT system, which was revamped under then-Governor Rick Scott's administration, was woefully out-of-date and unable to handle the number of applicants that flooded in back in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. 

Eagle described the current system as a re-coded program first sold to Massachusetts years ago and then tailored to Florida’s need. Scott’s administration spent $80 million for the current CONNECT program, which was launched in 2014. 

An audit of the system that was done in 2019 detailed hundreds of issues with CONNECT. The state spent tens of millions of dollars to prop up the system in 2020 and get more applications processed.

State Senator Randolph Bracy (D-Orlando) called CONNECT “garbage.”

Eagle said CONNECT should be done away with and replaced with something new. He compared it to a 2013 iPhone that has never been updated. 

Governor Ron DeSantis has referred to the system as a "jalopy" many times.

A new system could be up and running as early as July 2023, Eagle said.

State Senator Jason Pizzo (D-Miam) pointed out that when the CONNECT system was built, Florida was dealing with double-digit unemployment at the time, so the potential for problems should not have been unexpected.

"How the hell did we build a website, pay for a website, launch a website having those numbers in 2011?" Pizzo asked Eagle.

Pizzo also asked Eagle whether the Florida Inspector General report, which DEO has a preliminary copy to review, will show what many critics have argued — that the original CONNECT System was built to make it hard to get unemployment benefits.

"I don't know what to expect," Eagle said.

FL DEO dropped this report Friday hours after Governor Ron DeSantis walked out when asked why people are still months waiting for owed unemployment benefits.

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