State unemployment call center delays are wasting precious time

March 19, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

Imagine losing your job and the emotional toll that goes with it.

Not only do you lose a weekly paycheck, but you also feel a certain loss of self-worth that goes with heading into work every morning and having a purpose in society.

The unemployed also face many difficult decisions about what cuts they must make in their personal lives to still be able to afford food, medicine or the mortgage. It can be a debilitating time for some as they struggle to live while spending hours each day searching for a new job, sometimes in futility.

The closure of three state Department of Labor & Industry call centers that handle unemployment compensation claims and questions has compounded this issue.

In December, 521 workers – or more than double the call center staff – were furloughed from their jobs as Gov. Tom Wolf was forced to close the call centers in Allentown, Altoona and Lancaster following a funding stalemate in the Republican-controlled state Senate. That caused a major backlog in the phone calls coming from unemployed workers as they tried to receive answers to questions or make changes to their unemployment benefits account.

Those delays have compelled unemployed workers to visit one of the 61 CareerLink offices across the state that have a single dedicated phone line – landline and cellphones rarely get through – that connects directly with the remaining call centers. Long lines are forming, sometimes out the door, as people wait to use one phone available only three days out of the week at their nearest office.

“It’s a nightmare, really,” said Ami Gatts, president of Washington-Greene County Job Training Agency.

It’s challenging enough to find a job in any circumstance. It’s quite another to wait in a long line to merely make a phone call about unemployment compensation.

To its credit, L&I has worked to streamline the process after a rush of unemployment compensation applicants in January at the beginning of a new quarter and after thousands of seasonal workers were laid off following the holidays. They’ve “juggled” the remaining staff to run more efficiently and are taking the initiative of making calls to the busiest CareerLink centers to get the process moving quicker, according to Labor & Industry spokeswoman Sara Goulet.

But the only way to truly solve the problem is the reinstate funding to these call centers.

The state House last year approved a $57.5 million funding plan to keep the all of the call centers open, but the Senate did not vote on that measure, forcing Wolf to order the furloughs. There’s no reason for this vote to wait any longer, and Wolf is hopeful that an agreement will be reached soon.

The clock is ticking.

Those minutes or hours unemployed people waste standing in line waiting to make a phone call is precious time they could be spending searching for a new job.

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