TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Gov. Ron DeSantis dismissed as partisan a request Monday by two Democratic U.S. senators for a federal investigation related to Florida's handling of unemployment benefits.
"Well, I've never heard of partisan politics in Washington D.C. before. Oh, my goodness. Can you imagine that?" DeSantis, a former congressman, derisively replied when asked in Miami about the request by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. "Look, these guys are very partisan. That's all they're doing."
Schumer and Wyden sent a letter to Scott Dahl, inspector general at the U.S. Department of Labor, requesting an investigation into the federal agency's oversight of Florida's problems in carrying out expanded unemployment benefits under a federal-stimulus law known as the CARES Act.
In the letter, Schumer and Wyden wrote that in addition to "repeated crashes and glitches" experienced by Floridians seeking jobless benefits, "inaction from both current and past gubernatorial administrations in Florida left (the state Department of Economic Opportunity) completely unprepared to respond to record increases in unemployment claims caused by a pandemic."
"Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently stated that the program was 'designed with all these different things, basically to fail' and acknowledged that more changes are needed," Schumer and Wyden wrote. "Drastic improvements are needed, and it is unclear what steps are being taken immediately to mitigate the possibility of future failures in FLDEO's (the Department of Economic Opportunity's) unemployment processing system."
As of Sunday, the department reported receiving about 2.35 million claims since March 15, with nearly 1.35 million "eligible" claims processed. About 1.25 million people had been paid state and/or federal benefits, while another 476,700 had been ruled ineligible for assistance.
Schumer and Wyden noted in their letter that between March 1 and April 15, when "the state should have been ramping up its disbursement of unemployment benefits," Florida's unemployment trust fund grew by nearly $17 million.
DeSantis, who has criticized the state's CONNECT online unemployment system as a "jalopy," has directed an audit into the creation of the $77.9 million system, which went live in 2013.
Calling efforts to improve the CONNECT system and get money out to Floridians "a high priority for the administration," DeSantis said Monday his probe will take time.
"This took place over a number of years. As of now, as of last night, you know, the states paid over $4.6 billion out to claimants, close to 1.3 million individual claimants," said DeSantis, who was in Miami for an update on federal plans for the hurricane season.
"We lost a million jobs in April, obviously lost some in March," DeSantis added, "So, we've really been able to, you know, pick this thing off the mat, we're going to continue to do more and, and I think that that's the right thing to do."
Florida Democrats have called for the state probe of CONNECT to include the handling of the system under DeSantis, who took office in January 2019.
Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo issued a statement Monday supporting Schumer and Wyden on seeking a federal investigation.
"For months, hundreds of thousands of Floridians have been tortured by an unemployment system that was designed to fail workers, despite repeated warnings that it was grossly inadequate," Rizzo said in a release.
(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Turner contributed to this report.)
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