John Finnerty: Hold times top two-hours for jobless claims

Even before layoffs take effect at state unemployment offices, fewer operators are picking up the phones, and people seeking help filing claims are waiting — for hours, in some cases.

Wait times for calls into the unemployment centers are topping two hours, said Sara Goulet, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Industry. The worst time to call is late morning.

Last week, more than 7,000 people gave up before reaching an operator, she said.

“Our average wait time before these changes was just under 10 minutes,” she said.

The department even has a literal “red alert” posted to its website, warning callers of “lengthy wait times” and offering tips to avoid them.

The main tip: Don’t call, use the website. Which is a little redundant, perhaps.

Goulet said the department is “working to simplify the online process” by adding tutorials on the website.

“Our goal is to work within our now-wounded system,” she said, “and to find ways to help people seeking benefits while at the same time helping the 521 workers who will soon lose their jobs find new ones.”

Regardless, the department’s warnings have raised eyebrows at the Capitol. Republicans including House Majority Leader Dave Reed expressed bafflement.

The layoffs for workers at call centers in Allentown, Altoona and Lancaster take effect Monday. After they close, Labor and Industry will still have four call centers serving people seeking jobless benefits.

Reed questioned how the changes are already having such a drastic effect.

“They are already telling folks, ‘You can’t get connected to anybody because of the layoffs,’” he said.

“But the folks have to physically be laid off before you can use that as an excuse.”

Turns out, you don’t have to wait for people to be laid off.

The department told workers in the soon-to-close call centers to let the phones ring while they finished other “equally important” jobs, Goulet said, like reviewing claims or returning calls about claims with missing information.

The situation is the result of a stalemate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican lawmakers over whether to continue special funding for the call centers.

After the state Senate left town in November without approving an extra year’s funding, Wolf said the administration would lay off the centers’ workers.

This prompted a round of finger-pointing. Wolf and the union representing state workers blamed Republicans in the state Senate. They blamed the governor for failing to let them know about the funding problem earlier, or failing to solve the problem without coming to them hat in hand.

The underlying issue was a decline in federal funding tied to the unemployment rate. As joblessness fell, so did federal aid for unemployment offices.

The Legislature had approved four years of special spending to help Labor and Industry deal with the declining money from the federal government.

The House approved an extra $57.5 million, with the requirement that an audit determine how the money was being used.

But the spending wasn’t approved in the Senate, where Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, earlier this month said there ought to be an audit before any more money is spent.

Auditor General Eugene Depasquale, a Democrat, has said he’ll announce in January whether he’ll wade into those waters.

(John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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