Monica Yant Kinney: The phone is rarely picked up at Penna. unemployment office

Unemployed salesman Ken Eidinger spent hours on his phone trying to reach a Pa. service center. MONICA YANT KINNEY / Staff
Unemployed salesman Ken Eidinger spent hours on his phone trying to reach a Pa. service center. MONICA YANT KINNEY / Staff
Posted: October 01, 2012

Years after revealing how Pennsylvania nickel-and-dimed the jobless with hidden fees to collect unemployment via debit cards, I regret to inform you that the Corbett administration is inflicting new insults to injury on folks already battered by the endless recession.

This pain is mental and financial.

The psychological anguish comes from spending hours, days - weeks, even - dialing and redialing a toll-free number that's always busy and criminally understaffed.

The monetary blow is collateral damage. If you can't get through, you don't collect. Cue the ripple effect, from missed child support payments to near evictions.

"Trying to reach anyone at unemployment is a full-time job," grumbles Jennifer Kaminsky, a Montgomery County food broker who filed a new claim Aug. 29 and has yet to receive a dime.

Ken Eidinger, a laid-off salesman working nominally at a YMCA and teaching drums, tried to outsmart the system by downloading a redialing app. More than 500 calls later - including 63 attempts Sept. 4 - he admitted defeat:

"It's a good thing I have unlimited minutes."

The waiting game

Blame the feds, state Labor and Industry officials told attorneys at Community Legal Services (CLS) after they filed a complaint about jobbing the jobless.

The state unemployment rate in August remained at 8.1 percent, unchanged from the same time last year. Yet since January, the number of new unemployment claims in Pennsylvania has fallen by 40 percent.

As a consequence of the dip in new filers and other factors, the state lost $30 million in federal funding. In a move that recouped $5 million, the Corbett administration had the brilliant idea to close a call center, fire 100 workers, and reduce by nearly half (from 75 to 40) the hours phones are staffed.

To put the numbers in perspective, 372 Pennsylvanians are now paid to pick up when 525,000 unemployed cry for help. But only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

By now, the unemployed know to file online. But even savvy web users report near-constant hiccups forcing them to dial 888-313-7284 for a human at one of seven remaining service centers.

To illustrate how quickly the state's mid-August cuts hit bone, a paralegal from CLS spent two weeks dialing and compiling the results in a bleak spreadsheet.

Aug. 22, 1:51 p.m., 33 consecutive busy signals; never got through, stopped after two hours.

Aug. 29, 9:01 a.m. 54 consecutive busy signals over 2 hours and 50 minutes; 57 minutes on hold after making connection.

Sep. 5, 9:07 a.m., 78 consecutive busy signals; never got through, stopped after four hours.

The state stats are also annoying:

July busy signals: 325,219.

September busy signals: 415,706 and counting, since I got the data before the month ended.

Bad to worse?

In her July 19 complaint to U.S. labor officials, CLS managing attorney Sharon Dietrich argued that Pennsylvania has for years failed to meet federal requirements to pay unemployment in a timely manner. She predicted a systemic "paralysis" from the slash-and-burn approach to customer service.

In a September meeting confirmed by both sides, the state labor secretary acknowledged the problem and said she was open to any solution except rehiring.

"But you need people," Dietrich countered. "If you don't have staff to do the work, it doesn't get done."

A Labor & Industry spokeswoman tells me the department will revamp the website to "reduce computer flags" that lead to "unnecessary calls" to the toll-free line.

Had anyone picked up during Eidinger's marathon attempts, he would have shared how each missed $572 payment pushed him deeper into a financial abyss. Underemployed since 2011, he had 12 weeks' eligibility left when he finally gave up - thus saving the state an additional $6,864.

"They gave me no choice. I can't spend my life dialing," he explains. "They're so busy helping people, they're not helping anybody."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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