LENOX -- Is state government getting a bad rap for the problems too many unemployed people have encountered filing claims for weekly benefits through the new online system and its call centers?
You be the judge.
As chronicled in today’s Eagle, numerous people in the Berkshires and statewide have faced prolonged delays in receiving checks, waits of up to an hour or two for live telephone assistance (at times resulting in disconnects), bills for supposed benefits overpayments and other snafus.
State Secretary for Labor and Workforce Development Joanne Goldstein contends that the system is working well now, and blames initial problems on the launch of a complex new system, UI Online, on July 1 that replaced 11 interconnected -- or archaic -- systems.
Her office supplied statistics showing that over the past 10 weeks, 57,296 new claims for benefits were filed and, on average, three out of five people successfully used the new online system or the automated, no-wait-needed phone center.
That also means two out of five newly unemployed, or 22,918, had to wrestle with overloaded phone lines to directly communicate with a live person. Because of an initially inadequate number of customer-service staffers, the state added 100 more.
For the unemployed seeking to continue their claims, the state tally for the 10 weeks through Sept. 7 came to 1,047,386 filings, averaging about 115,000 individuals each week. About 96 percent were able to navigate the online system or the automated phone service.
Clearly, jobless folks new to the procedure were the ones encountering problems. The Pittsfield-based BerkshireWorks Career Center serves about 170 of the unemployed each week who come in for help -- half of them had trouble online, according to the center’s director, John Barrett III.
In about half of Berkshire County’s 31 communities, mostly smaller hilltowns, broadband Internet access is spotty or non-existent. That’s a major impediment, as Goldstein acknowledged in her reply to a letter of complaint from the county’s five state lawmakers.
"We don’t want you folks out there to think we’ve forgotten about you," she told The Eagle. As if anyone in the Berkshires would ever think such a thing!
Goldstein’s office produced a fact sheet for my inspection. It emphasizes the virtues of the modern new online system, with myriad capabilities to assist the unemployed, in contrast to the obsolete 1984 model. "There were only two retired employees who knew how to program that system," the fact sheet pointed out.
Other exhibits in the state’s defense: The antiquated system was very fragmented, with 11 separate units. The number of weekly calls to the Division of Unemployment Assistance customer service phone lines peaked at 29,205 in July -- "a spike anticipated with such a major IT launch of a multi-faceted and complex system" -- but settled back to a more typical 25,852 calls per week in August.
The state also contends that there always have been delays affecting some claims. For example, an employer may contest whether someone was terminated or left for other reasons. Questioned claims, currently 1,500 to 2,000 a day -- triple the number under the old system -- have to be "adjudicated," but the DUA says the turnaround time has been reduced.
To her credit, Goldstein addressed all questions and only ducked one. When I cited the reported experience of a Lawrence man who had been billed erroneously for $45,000 in alleged overpayments, she said she could not comment on specific cases but listed "interface problems" using the new system encountered by individuals, staffers, or issues stemming from the conversion of old computerized data into UI Online.
As for the reported 40-minute average wait time for live customer service, Goldstein said that’s now been cut to 30 minutes.
"We’re not happy, we’d like to see it go down even lower," she said. "We’re doing everything we can to get the wait time down. We’ve hired more temps to take phone calls, we’ve instructed employees to take down a person’s phone number in case a call is disconnected."
"We’re doing a really good job getting to where we want to be," Goldstein said. "We feel in general that any issues that came up we have been able to resolve. We’re seeing fewer of those."
Goldstein denied any systemwide glitch or failure. But her most telling comment came when, under persistent questioning, she replied: "I think I would counsel patience, but that’s hard when you’re the individual who didn’t get through and you have rent to pay and people to feed."
That’s the heart of the issue. We’re all slaves to technology, whether it’s a problem with state government, an airline, a company, an erroneous credit score, on and on. When a system works, we all benefit. But, too often, Internet technology falls short and the frustrating result is customer disservice.
Few of us can muster the patience of a saint.
To contact Clarence Fanto: email@example.com