Call center closures leave Pennsylvania’s unemployed waiting in line

March 19, 2017
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Katie Anderson/Observer-Reporter
A worker at the CareerLink office in Waynesburg uses the dedicated phone line to contact workers at a state Department of Labor & Industry unemployment compensation call center. Order a Print
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CareerLink in Waynesburg

WAYNESBURG – Three days each week in January a line of unemployed people would stretch out the door of CareerLink center in Waynesburg. In that month alone, the foot traffic coming into the career center on High Street nearly doubled its normal number.

In Uniontown and Washington, the lines were even worse and continue to be troublesome as CareerLink offices there handle larger caseloads.

But the reason for the influx in clients wasn’t because of the unemployment rate.

Instead, the long wait times were because of the closures of three state Department of Labor & Industry call centers across the state in late December after inaction by the Republican-controlled state Senate forced Gov. Tom Wolf to make budget cuts and furlough 521 employees at offices in Allentown, Altoona and Lancaster. That backed up phone lines and herded people into the CareerLink centers to use a single dedicated phone line in each of the state’s 61 offices as they tried to get assistance with unemployment benefits.

“It’s a nightmare, really,” said Ami Gatts, president of Washington-Greene County Job Training Agency. “Now they only have so many people to answer the calls.”

The Waynesburg office typically sees about 140 job seekers each January, according to Terri Cooley-Taylor, the PA CareerLink site administrator at that center. But the call center backup ballooned that number to 250, up 79 percent from what they typically see.

Compounding the problem, each CareerLink office’s dedicated phone line is only available three days each week, meaning some people visit the office only to be turned away when told the phone is not in use on a particular day.

For example, the Waynesburg office phone can be used only Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, while the Washington office line is available Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

“It’s taxing on them,” Cooley-Taylor said of both her employees and the clients coming in. “They’ve done a great job working on this, working with hundreds of more people a month. The individuals who come in are stressed out and confused, but we’ve done a good job helping out.”

Cooley-Taylor said they and other offices have relayed the problems back to L&I in Harrisburg, which made changes after the initial surge of traffic, and the lines have eased a bit.

Labor & Industry spokeswoman Sara Goulet said there are several reasons for the improvement to wait times over the past two months. She noted that January is typically the busiest time for unemployment claims, with people leaving seasonal jobs after the holidays. The state also recently added funding to allow 44,000 more seasonal workers to be eligible for unemployment compensation who weren’t eligible before.

“We’re happy about that, but timing wise, it wasn’t the best,” she said of the seasonal workers. “As the month went on, the wait times decreased.”

The dedicated phone lines jump people ahead of those using their own landlines or cellphones. As word spread, more people packed the CareerLink centers trying to get through.

“Clearly during the time of crisis, as people learned that phone line was there, word spread … (that) someone picks up that phone immediately,” Goulet said.

She and Gatts said they’re trying to make people aware that most unemployment claims and questions can be handled online, although access to the internet can be a problem in rural areas. Some problems, however, such as changes to a PIN or password, can be done only over the phone.

“They feel leery about doing it online,” Gatts said. “They want to come in and feel that connection.”

The state is trying to make improvements to streamline the phone process. Goulet said the call centers now immediately call the busiest CareerLink centers to get the process moving as they try to “triage” the system. She added they are “juggling” the 431 employees still working at call centers in Scranton, Duquesne, Erie, Indiana and an overflow center in Harrisburg to be more efficient.

Meanwhile, Wolf’s press secretary, J.J. Abbott, said the administration hopes the state will reinstate some funding to the call center system. The state House last year approved a $57.5 million funding plan to keep all of the call centers open, but the Senate did not vote on it. Abbott said negotiations are continuing to reinstate funding, which could come in the next couple of weeks.

“We’re still committed to getting the funding to having additional staffing,” Abbott said. “They’re doing their best to be all hands on deck to tackle all of the calls they’re getting.”

Any changes won’t come before another crush of new applicants are expected to arrive with the start of the new quarter in April.

“That’s the natural ebb and flow with how people file,” Goulet said. “The start of the quarter is always busy. We anticipate some increased wait time.”

There has been one upside to the increase in the number of people visiting the CareerLink centers to use the phones. Cooley-Taylor said the face-to-face interactions with more people is giving the CareerLink staff a change to make them aware what programs are available for unemployed workers.

“We’re doing the best we can using the opportunity to market the CareerLink so they know what resources area available,” Cooley-Taylor said. “Let’s turn a negative in a positive.”

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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