TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (SPECTRUM NEWS) – Now seven months on the job as executive director of the state agency overseeing Florida’s problem-plagued unemployment system, Dane Eagle admits there remains much work to be done.

What You Need To Know

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has been under siege the past year, as it tries to tend to an understaffed, out of date, and overwhelmed unemployment system.

Even a year later, problems still persist.

“It’s tough right now, we’re behind,” Danielle Priebe of Brevard County told Spectrum News last week. “I’m behind on my car, so it’s kind of scary we might lose the car.”

Until days ago when Spectrum News took Priebe’s claim issues to DEO, she had been 12 weeks without benefits.

“I’m angry at the same time because assistance is supposed to be there for people like me who are struggling and it’s not helping,” Priebe said.

The Melbourne area mom and out-of-work merchandiser is not alone.

“It’s frustrating because a system should be designed to work,” said Mindy Weiss of Orlando. “Nobody in any state should have to go through this kind of frustration when they didn’t even ask for this to happen.”

After being furloughed in Spring 2020, then called back to work for a few months, Weiss was eventually laid off permanently from her waitressing job at a pizza restaurant in Orlando.

“Every week when I go in to look at the payment history I claimed it says disqualified,” Weiss said.

Weiss has now been waiting for her claim to be adjusted for the better part of four months.

Countless Floridians continue to reach out to Spectrum News, describing a variety of unknown reasons for why their claims are stuck, stalled, and left in what’s been described as a pending purgatory.

Unable to find adequate work, many like Weiss, fear falling further behind.

“Right now, if it weren’t for my mother-in-law helping to pay rent, I’d probably be living on that chair right there,” Weiss said.

“My message to them is: we hear you.”

“Sometimes we address something and the CONNECT system gives us another problem we’ve got to deal with, but people are working night and day,” Dane Eagle, Executive Director of DEO told Spectrum News this week.

Eagle said he knows the system is still fractured.

Floridians are complaining of not only stalled claims, but call center agents giving often inaccurate or contradicting information, as well as claimants receiving confusing letters from the agency.

“As far as call centers, yes, those are trained staffers and some of them are contracted staffers that can assist with some of the claim processing issues,” Eagle said. “However, if a claimant has a more complicated issue that requires adjudication, that needs to go to our adjudication staff who are working behind the scenes tirelessly to fix the issue. What the call center staff will do is forward that to the adjudicator to begin work on, but unfortunately that call center staff can’t give an answer at the moment.”

Eagle says the problems Floridians are having with the unemployment system boil down to two points: the first being the system is not functioning as it should, from a technology point. The other is manpower; there’s not enough DEO employees with the skills needed to process complicated claims.

“The backlog issue takes more experienced staff because CONNECT won’t do it for them and we have to make sure our staff can go in and do so,” Eagle said. “We’re proposing, and asking for, over 430 more employees. We’ve already added 300 and we’re going to add more to make sure they can work on those complicated claims and those who keep getting stuck in the system.”

Adding frustration is that some say they’ve been waiting months to receive benefits owed, without any knowledge of why their claims are stuck or when they’ll finally get paid.

“We try to process as many claims as possible, as quickly as possible,” Eagle said. “We processed 97% of claimants. I know the 3% out there that are dealing with issues are frustrated when they hear that, but that’s our focus, making sure we do get to those 3%.”

That “3%” represents more than 75,000 Floridians still waiting to be paid, according to DEO’s dashboard. DEO says its paid out more than $23.3 billion in state and federal benefits to more than 2.2 million people.

Growing strained and stressed, Floridians say the state is overdue in fixing these problems. 

Eagle said 1,800 DEO employees are working ‘night and day’ to address the backlog, but admits the fixes can only come as fast as the size of his workforce and support he has with funding.

“My message to them is we hear you,” Eagle said. “I know it might be frustrating, but what I can tell you, my time at DEO, seeing the staff here, they care, they’re working day and night and we’re implementing new measures to make sure at least communication is there.”

Eagle points to a new online chat feature allowing claimants with issues to bypass the call center. Some, however, have described even issues with the chat feature. Eagle said the program allows users to connect with live agents online and that it is still in "testing" phase.

WATCH: Full Interview With Florida DEO Executive Director Dane Eagle

Extending Unemployment Benefits

As the agency is still working to distribute previously-owed federal and state benefits, Eagle said they’re also working to stand by for the potential of more federal extended unemployment benefits.

Congress is currently negotiating a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that could bring $400 per week benefits. The current federal benefits, passed in December 2020, are set to expire March 14, 2021.

A freshman state agency executive, Eagle, served eight years in the Florida House of Representatives, representing Lee County.

He’s now petitioning his former colleagues to provide enough funding to increase staffing and fund technology upgrades.

A recent independent audit, commissioned by DEO, found the agency would likely need upwards of $244 million over the next five years to fully replace the CONNECT system itself. 

Governor Ron DeSantis has long called CONNECT “a jalopy”. Eagle told lawmakers it’s much like a 2006 iPhone that’s never been updated.

DEO poured more than $125 million into upgrading the system, hiring third-party call center agents, and taking various measures to try to process the surge of claims. Problems, however, persisted, with arguments now that a system band-aided by a patchwork of temporary solutions simply needs to be replaced. 

“We’re in a much better spot than we were in April,” DeSantis said Tuesday when asked about the unemployment problems that still exist. “We had to do a lot of things to fix the system. I want them to have the quickest turnaround time as possible. Dane is committed to doing that, and he also understands, look I said this is a big bureaucracy, it’s a big state. It’s easy for people to fall through the cracks, but we don’t want to see that, so if you have folks who have been waiting for a while, we want to make an effort to get to them.”

Fraud: “You Have Nigerian Princes Looting Some of These Systems…”

The agency is also working to ensure it’s not losing money to fraud.

A U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General investigation found states across the U.S. have paid out more than $5.4 billion in fraudulent claims. Most of those fake claims involved scammers stealing social security numbers belonging to dead people and federal prison inmates. 

“You have these Nigerian princes looting some of these systems and so we didn’t want that to happen in Florida, so we maintained integrity of it that ended up saving taxpayers a lot of money,” said DeSantis.

It’s clear fraud is becoming more problematic.

In recent weeks Spectrum News has fielded a growing number of complaints about claims being put into "holds" due to identification verification requirements or related issues.

An employee with a municipality in Brevard County shared with Spectrum News documentation showing nearly a dozen city workers receiving notifications and/or unemployment checks from DEO, even though none of the employees ever applied for unemployment benefits.

DEO has stepped up its marketing and awareness campaigns addressing fraud.

The agency has yet to be able to provide specific data points on how much it may have paid out in fraudulent claims at this point.

“We don’t have a number of how much fraud has been potentially paid out, statistically speaking,” Eagle said. “We have to expect that bad actors are taking advantage of others’ identities, but we do know that we’ve stopped a lot. As I mentioned, we had over 1 million claims tried to be filled with CONNECT system in January alone. We noticed that and took proactive measures.”

Eagle said in that January instance, 150,000 fraudulent claims were blocked by a fire coding system, with 750,000 other potentially fraudulent claims forwarded to ID.me software for identification verification.

Eagle told House members Monday that there are a series of criminal investigations underway, with involvement from local law enforcement, as well as agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.