In a "Dear Colleague" letter to state lawmakers in Boston, including the Berkshire delegation, Secretary Joanne Goldstein of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development has pledged to expedite improvements to the new online system for filing unemployment claims.
Responding again to complaints from Berkshire legislators and to published reports that some seekers of benefits have encountered a variety of glitches since the system was launched July 1, Goldstein said that Deloitte Consulting of New York, will be responsible for curing the problems. The financial services firm was hired under a $46 million state contract to design and launch the system.
"Massachusetts now has a 120-day warranty and is holding Deloitte, our IT vendor, accountable for any necessary improvements," the Sept. 26 letter obtained by The Eagle on Friday stated.
Goldstein declared that "overall, the launch was successful and the system is working," the same position she took in an Eagle interview last weekend and a followup letter to the editor.
Since July 1, she wrote in her latest letter to lawmakers, the Department of Unemployment Assistance has paid $462 million in benefits for more than 1.3 million continuing claims filed each week and also "supported more than 66,000 new claims filed."
Statistics supplied to The Eagle by Goldstein's office showed that while the majority - about 60 percent - of new claims were handled successfully through the new online system or by an automated phone center, more than 23,000 people needed direct help from the customer support staff.
Responding to reports of long waits exceeding 90 minutes at times, some disconnects and other problems resulting in denial of benefits, the department added 100 staffers - double the original number - to handle the deluge of phone calls. In addition, training was stepped up.
Goldstein also restated assurances to lawmakers that her agency was ramping up its effort to ease the logjam.
"I'm pleased with the attention Secretary Goldstein has given to this," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "But the constituents' concerns are serious, especially in towns without Internet service. I'm surprised and very disappointed that people have had trouble getting in-person help."
"It's not OK that they're waiting 11 to 15 weeks for benefits when they're dealing with losing their livelihood," she added. "People are genuinely frustrated and they have good reason to be."
Farley-Bouvier said her office is trying to help a Pittsfield woman who recently had to begin living out of her car, sleeping in it on some nights and being put up by friends on others.
"She's been waiting for benefits more than 11 weeks," said Farley-Bouvier. "It's distressing. This is somebody who is my peer, who until very recently was very middle-class with a professional job."
According to state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, the state agency still has some work to do to "make sure every glitch is found and everyone's needs are addressed." But she praised the timely, efficient response she and her staff has received from the Division of Unemployment Assistance in helping to resolve constituents' problems.
"People are in some kind of dire straits when they have to contact their state representative," Cariddi added, noting that her office has handled a few dozen complaints.
She also noted that a Lanesborough resident has alerted her about bogus websites masquerading as state agencies that are said to be seeking personal data from people who are having difficulty with their unemployment claims.
"We've caught the attention of a lot of folks in Boston," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. According to the Lenox-based Democrat, the combined effects of the Berkshire delegation's initial letter and media coverage that followed have "helped raise the game" of the state agency.
"I hope that continues and they work out the bugs and streamline the process," he declared. "Nobody should be on hold for an unreasonable amount of time and they can't assume everyone in the Berkshires has broadband access or is computer-literate."
In her new letter to the entire state Senate and House of Representatives, Goldstein doubled down on a commitment to "make every effort to expeditiously and effectively resolve all claims."
"As is to be expected with any program launch of this size, we have identified improvements that must be made in order for us to aptly serve every claimant," she wrote.
The state's online claims system can be accessed at www.mass.gov/lwd/unemployment-insur, though it is scheduled to be off-line for maintenance on Saturday, reopening on Sunday. The toll-free phone number for assistance is 877-626-6800.
The state's online claims system can be accessed at www.mass.gov/lwd/unemployment-insur. The toll-free phone number for assistance is (877) 626-6800.