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U.S. Labor Department to probe Florida's jobless benefits website

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. Department of Labor officials will travel to Florida to investigate the state's troubled unemployment compensation website following criticism it is failing to get jobless benefits to laid-off workers, an official said on Wednesday.

Florida's economic development chief told a legislative committee on Wednesday that he was "frustrated" by glitches in the $63 million website and related services. He said the state government would consider additional penalties against Deloitte, the website's designer.

"The state's unemployment website is a dismal failure, and Governor Rick Scott is responsible," state Senator Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Orlando, said at a news conference. She said some of her constituents have gone nine weeks without payment, and some are in danger of losing their homes and cannot afford food.

Jason Kuruvilla, a Labor Department spokesman, said officials would arrive in Florida later this week to examine the website.

Unemployment is a hot topic for state Democrats, who support President Barack Obama's effort to extend jobless benefits. They have depicted Republicans in Congress as heartless for opposing the extension.

Scott, a Republican up for re-election this year, has trailed Democratic challenger and former Governor Charlie Crist in recent polls. Democrats have persistently hammered the governor on several hot-button partisan issues, like healthcare, immigration and social services.

Last year, the Department of Labor ordered Florida to improve access to jobless benefits for people with disabilities or limited English proficiency.

Under revised procedures introduced in 2011, Florida requires everyone who applies for unemployment benefits to do so online. A person must complete a 45-question online exam that tests reading, math and research skills before he can receive a check.

In Washington, the office of Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, issued a statement saying that he had spoken with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez about the malfunctioning website.

A study by the National Employment Law Project indicated that jobless Floridians may have lost more than $22 million in unemployment benefits in October and November because of the website's problems, Nelson said.

The governor's office responded with a suggestion that critics, including Nelson, should worry more about flood insurance rates for coastal residents and less about online sign-up snarls for unemployed workers.

Florida ranks among the most tight-fisted states in the country when it comes to providing jobless benefits for the unemployed.

The average unemployment benefit paid to recipients in Florida was just $231 a week last year. Only Alabama and Mississippi paid out less in average weekly jobless aid.

MORE FINES AND MAYBE A FREEZE

A group of Democratic lawmakers assembled in front of the Senate chamber on Wednesday to demand that Deloitte refund taxpayer funds paid for the "CONNECT" system. They spoke before a meeting of the Senate budget panel's Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development, which is reviewing the situation.

State Senator Tom Lee, a Republican, suggested that Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), which administers the state's jobless benefits program, should order a boycott of Deloitte until the website works.

"To what extent do we have the authority to freeze them out of doing business with the state of Florida until this system is fixed?" Lee asked.

The website's rollout had been a letdown, Jesse Panuccio, the DEO's executive director, told a Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

Panuccio said the agency is pressing to get the website working before looking at additional penalties. The DEO fined Deloitte $4.5 million in 2012 and withheld $1.5 million in payments after a botched conversion of the enrollment system.

Last month, the DEO announced it would not pay Deloitte $3 million as scheduled and levied fines of $15,000 a day.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Gray and Tom Brown; Editing by David Adams and Jan Paschal)

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