Monica Yant Kinney: The jobless get little help from Pennsylvania

Posted: October 04, 2012

In 2000, as Pennsylvania closed staffed, face-to-face unemployment offices, the Ridge administration aimed to make government user-friendly and "friction-free."

The move saved the state $3 million at a time when unemployment rates had plunged. Allowing the jobless to file online and by phone seemed well-intentioned. No longer would needy people waste precious time waiting in long lines.

As the recession slammed the state in 2008, the Rendell administration hired scads of customer-service workers and expanded hotline hours to keep up with the deluge.

But in 2010, when Tom Corbett ran for governor, he telegraphed a bleak future for the jobless with a snarky campaign remark that "the jobs are there . . . but if we keep extending unemployment, people are just going to sit there."

Since taking office, Corbett has waged war on those without the means or might to fight, demanding asset tests for food stamps, gutting general assistance, and imposing costly service fees on parents of intellectually disabled children. My column Sunday about collateral damage from the firing of 100 unemployment call center workers generated a new wave of suspicion and derision about a heartless leader.

Laid-off professionals and blue-collar workers alike report spending hours and days on the phone battling busy signals. Democrats and Republicans say they believe the Corbett administration is intentionally making it arduous to file for, and collect, unemployment.

Jerry Zeiger spent three decades in car sales, enduring periodic bouts of joblessness. The Northeast Philadelphia man says he's never felt as thwarted as he does now.

"This is obviously," Zeiger declares, "a damn maneuver to keep people from collecting what they put in, what they are owed."

Tips from the pros

I never imagined that a column about the plight of redialing would comfort anyone. Yet it did.

"I felt like this was written for me," read one Facebook post. "I'm glad and sad to see I'm not alone."

Many jobless sleuths happily shared a simple tip guaranteed to get action: Stop dialing 888-313-7284 and instead call a state representative or senator, who have a direct line to Labor & Industry liaisons trained to jump when politicians intervene.

Legislators confirm to me that they stand ready and willing to aid crushed constituents. Some have staff who do nothing but untangle thorny unemployment cases.

Alternately, several readers - including one laid-off unemployment call center veteran now navigating the system himself - suggest visiting state CareerLink offices. Intended to be used by job seekers, these facilities often have a dedicated line to reach unemployment staff.

A source inside Labor & Industry confirms that some CareerLink centers draw angry crowds who come only to use those secret batphones.

Wanted: Respect

Cheryl Spaulding knows she sounds agitated, but in 16 years of helping mostly white-collar unemployed people in Chester County, she's never seen an administration with such a "nefarious, odious" approach to have-nots as Corbett's.

"What I see lacking in Harrisburg is respect for people who've lost their jobs," says the president of the nonprofit group Joseph's People. "They are not freeloaders. They did not walk away from jobs, their jobs walked away from them."

William Clelland, a purchasing manager from Hatfield, was out of work when candidate Corbett implied the jobless were lazy. "His ignorance kept me from voting for him," Clelland told me, "even though I am a Republican."

Laid off again last month, Clelland rang the Philadelphia call center only to discover it had closed.

"They don't have e-mail, there's no lifeline," he mused. "I wonder if Corbett just doesn't believe in unemployment."

A Labor & Industry spokeswoman called the allegations "ludicrous . . . a conspiracy theory." She said Corbett's team works hard to answer the phones and pay claims, but has had to cope with federal funding cuts while taming the Rendell-era practice of "doling [unemployment] out" to "everybody."

Tuesday, Corbett responded to his critics, saying his "number-one priority as governor is jobs" and launching yet another DIY website, www.pacareercoach.org.

For kicks, I test-drove the site by typing the names and zip codes of a half-dozen unemployed readers. Each time, the state encouraged folks to seek work in the featured industry with a swell payday:

 Marcellus Shale.


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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