Budget cuts, old equipment blamed for late jobless benefits

Posted: January 31, 2013

HARRISBURG - Perpetually busy telephone lines, long waits for claims, and staff layoffs are among the difficulties state legislators say are preventing thousands of their constituents from getting unemployment compensation checks in a timely fashion.

At a hearing Tuesday, state Labor Secretary Julia K. Hearthway said that federal budget cuts and aging computer and phone systems - possibly even sabotage - were to blame for the troubles, and that the agency was working to fix the problem.

"We are working around the clock," she told members of the Labor Committees of the House and Senate.

In November, calls to unemployment compensation centers spiked from eight million to 15 million, up significantly from the same period of 2011. "We're hoping this fall was an anomaly," Hearthway said.

The increase in calls was so alarmingly large that her department asked state police to investigate, she said.

"We don't know whether there's any intentional activity" or whether the increase could be attributed to callers using cellphones with automatic redial, Hearthway said.

The increases come amid a $30 million reduction in federal funding that had gone in part to staffing the call centers - forcing 100 layoffs and the closure of the center in Philadelphia.

State Sen. Tina Tartaglione (D., Phila.) said she attributed the difficulties directly to those closures, and was angry that people who had spent their careers helping the unemployed were now themselves unemployed.

Hearthway said that the agency had instituted a fax system to help alleviate call volumes, and that an e-mail system for people to contact the unemployment compensation centers should be operational soon.

Tartaglione said she was disappointed. "I didn't hear any concrete proposal to fix it," she said.

Tartaglione has introduced a bill to help fund unemployment compensation administration by alloting a percentage of state revenues.

Hearthway suggested that individuals use the Internet or call other than at the first of the week to avoid busy signals.

One good option for callers: their local legislators' offices. House and Senate aides have access to dedicated phone lines that connect with staff members at the call centers who, according to lawmakers at the hearing, process claims in a timely manner.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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