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TMCNet:  Jammed up unemployment compensation hotline to improve, state official says

[January 29, 2013]

Jammed up unemployment compensation hotline to improve, state official says

Jan 29, 2013 (The Morning Call (Allentown - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- For months, Pennsylvanians trying to call the state unemployment compensation hotline to apply for benefits or resolve issues with their claims have encountered seemingly endless busy signals and frustration.

On Tuesday, Labor and Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway, a close ally of Gov. Tom Corbett, told lawmakers that noticeable improvements are on the way.

Hearthway spent an hour testifying in Harrisburg this morning at a rare joint-hearing of the house and senate labor committees. The call for Hearthway to testify before both groups simultaneously indicates lawmakers are frustrated that the call center problem has persisted for months and want to be reassured a solution is in the works.

Lawmakers throughout the state have reported receiving phone calls from constituents unable to get through to the state's unemployment compensation call center. Residents have reported spending hours repeatedly dialing the hotline, getting nothing but busy signals.

"You will see noticeable, good changes over the next three to six months," Hearthway told lawmakers, explaining that some glitches have been resolved but call volume has remained high because January is traditionally the busiest month for state unemployment call centers.

Hearthway said her department continues to work round the clock to smooth out glitches and it trying to update antiquated computer systems.

The call center problem is the most visible dilemma facing the Labor and Industry department since Hearthway was appointed secretary by Corbett in 2011. Hearthway has a legal background and previously worked as a fraud investigator beneath Corbett in the state Attorney General's office. She has also been a frequent donor to Corbett's political campaigns.

The labor and industry department has nearly 5,000 employees at 145 locations in Pennsylvania. Administering unemployment compensation is one of its primary functions.

The jammed-up unemployment compensation phone system came on the heels of budget cuts that resulted in fewer people picking up the phones at the state's unemployment compensation call centers, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.

The problem has been on full display daily at Lehigh Valley CareerLink in Allentown. Frustrated unemployment benefit applicants flood into the agency, which has two phones connected directly to unemployment compensation call centers. Those two phones can accommodate about eight people per hour, so lines often start early in the morning and the agency has had to turn people away.

Unemployment beneficiaries said the situation makes a stressful time of joblessness even more stressful. As they try to juggle job interviews, part-time work and training or classes, they also have to set aside hours to wait on line to access a phone to ensure they get a biweekly unemployment check. It also adds the expense of driving to CareerLink when they are trying to curb expenses.

Allentown resident Gina Harris, 49, sat in CareerLink Monday waiting to use the phone to check on the status of her unemployment claim. She lost her job last year when her employer closed its Lehigh Valley office.

"The line is always busy, and if you have a cell phone it's worse because if you do get through, you can get disconnected and have to start all over again," she said. "They need more staff. It can take a half day to get through." Alex Williams, 27, also waited to use the phones at CareerLink on Monday.

"It's busy all the time," he said of the state's phone system. "This has inconvenienced a lot of people. They need to hire more people. They're short-staffed and overwhelmed right now." The Labor Department lost $30 million in federal funding to process claims last year due to a decrease in the number of claims. The agency closed a call center in Philadelphia in August that employed 75 people and also reduced the hours of the hotline to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. The hotline previously had early morning, evening and weekend hours. 610-820-6694 ___ (c)2013 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) Visit The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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