Monica Yant Kinney: Helping jobless reach a human

Posted: October 08, 2012

After back-to-back columns about the Corbett administration's forcing unemployed people to waste weeks listening to busy signals, I'm thrilled to throw a glimmer of light into the bureaucratic black hole Pennsylvania's jobless call home.

If you, too, have been stymied by the Department of Labor and Industry (or any other state agency), you can ring a human being who will listen to your agony and take up your case. For free.

These angels toil anonymously in each county of the commonwealth. Unlike the rest of us, they hold jobs that can never be outsourced.

Technically, they work for the same state government that torments you, only these public servants spend their days righting others' wrongs.

When did "legislative constituent service" become so heroic? I had no clue, and might not have believed it myself, if not for the nearly 200 calls and e-mails extolling under-the-radar miracle-making in the city and suburbs.

Many of the anxious job-seekers acknowledge they didn't even know their legislators' names before dialing in desperation. After, the grateful use words like magic to describe these kind and savvy strangers' ability to wield power, phone, and fax.

"I called Sen. Daylin Leach's office," a Main Line reader wrote, "and I received a call back from Unemployment Compensation in 30 minutes!"

Bob Sommers can beat that. After a month of disputing an unemployment denial, the laid-off specialty lender asked Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) to intervene.

"Please note the turnaround time of the respective e-mails to and from my state senator's office," Sommers gushed: "26 minutes."

Making nobodies somebodies

Philadelphia Democratic Sens. Mike Stack and Christine Tartaglione forwarded nastygrams they wrote to Labor and Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway about how firing 100 unemployment call-center staffers has burdened the system and disenfranchised citizens.

Stack accused Hearthway of giving the jobless "the runaround, even if unintentional."

"You have made promises but have been unable to deliver results," Tartaglione scolded. "How do you intend to handle this continued system failure?"

Montgomery County Republican Rep. Kate Harper represents 60,000 people who realize now, in crisis, the services her office provides.

"Voter ID is not a big issue in my district. Unemployment is," Harper explains. "We have so many people who need unemployment who never needed it before. It's 90 percent of our call volume."

Depending on the urgency, Harper's legislative assistant Shannon Bucher either faxes a form to Labor and Industry or phones a division catering exclusively to legislators.

Either way, when a politician gets involved, a nobody becomes a somebody. Just like that.

Thus, the faxes nudge unemployment workers to call the jobless within 24 hours. The one-on-one approach works even faster, as Carol Murray can attest.

Murray, of Delaware County, will extol forever Mary Capuzzi, Republican Sen. Ted Erickson's executive assistant.

"I called her at 10 a.m.," Murray relays. "By 11, a man from the Duquesne unemployment office had called me."

How it's supposed to be?

Daniel Lodise had no idea he'd see so many tears when he became chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle. But the recession has battered Northeast Philadelphians on thin financial margins.

"We helped an unemployed woman in her 50s who came in my office and started to cry."

"She called unemployment about 50 times" but got nowhere. Unbeknownst to her, "we have these fantastic liaisons who will take our calls right away."

Lodise delights in getting results when all else fails, but notes the "onerous" and obvious: "This isn't the way it's supposed to be."


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

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