The state’s call center for unemployment compensation in downtown Allentown isn’t set up to help the jobless in person, but most days some will show up desperate for answers after getting a non-stop busy signal when they try calling.
An employee of the call center remembered one woman who claimed she had pressed redial 137 times before she even got the automated answering service that tells you how long your wait will be for a human being. That wait was 2 hours and 40 minutes.
“It’s bad, it really is bad,” the call center employee said. Allentown’s call center on Hamilton Street is one of seven in Pennsylvania. The state closed an eighth call center in Philadelphia in August and laid off 78 workers in response to a loss of federal funds.
Currently, the state has 520 employees to take calls and handle claims for the 525,000 unemployed, according to Sara Goulet, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor & Industry. Of those jobless, 275,000 are receiving benefits.
I started looking into this after a neighbor told me he had been trying for days to reach someone in an unemployment office who could tell him how to solve a problem with his claim.
He tried to fix the problem online at the Labor Department web site but there’s no option available for his particular issue. “I tried calling 30 or 40 times,” he said. “You can never get through.”
After hearing scores of similar stories, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia had a paralegal do an 11-day experiment to see how long it would take her each day to get through on the toll-free number. On Aug. 28, for example, the paralegal got 37 consecutive busy signals and stopped trying after two hours. On Sept. 5, she got 78 consecutive busy signals and stopped after four hours. The least amount of time it took her over 11 days to reach a live person was 29 minutes.
Sharon Dietrich, managing partner of Community Legal Services, said the logjam has left many of her agency’s clients in dire straits. “It’s true all over the state,” she said. “A lot of my clients are using cell phones and they have limits on their cell phone minutes. We have some people who come to our office just to use a phone to call.”
Dietrich said she understands that the state is trying to do more with less. But layoffs at call centers and cuts in the hours the unemployed can get help – currently 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday – hamstring people who are looking for work.
“I don’t think you can run a system where people can’t access the system,” she said.
In short, there aren’t enough people employed in trying to help the unemployed navigate the unemployment system. Talk about irony.
The cutbacks have come in response to a $30 million reduction in funds the state gets from the U.S. government to administer unemployment compensation. As the state jobless rate has dropped, along with the number of new people filing for benefits, so has the federal money for administration, Goulet said.
Goulet suggested the unemployed can call from the CareerLink on Union Boulevard, which has a phone line with better odds of getting through to staff at the call centers.
The call center employee also told me staff are under instructions to stay on the line when a call comes from a CareerLink so the phone can be passed from one jobless person to another to another.
Goulet, who said the state plans to add more temporary call center workers, said callers sometimes have shorter waits calling later in the day and later in the week. Other jobless people have had some success calling their legislator to intervene.
Remember, the Legislature last year passed a law that in order to get benefits, the jobless must now be able to prove they have applied for three jobs a week as well as signed up for employment search services with the Pennsylvania CareerLink.
So how can we expect people to do a full-time job search if they have to spend business hours redialing when they have a question about their checks?