Rhode Island's high jobless rate continues to strain the state system charged with handling unemployment insurance claims. Just this week, the Department of Labor and Training announced more help is on the way, but will it be enough? Jim Hummel finds one small businessman's difficulty getting through is affecting his company, as the director overseeing unemployment insurance discusses the changes he is making in the claims process.
Over the past year Rhode Island's unemployment rate has gone down nearly a full percentage point. But with 28,000 claims to process every week the state is still overwhelmed. This week: the owner of an East Providence company who says difficulty getting through to unemployment is affecting his business.
A total rehab of the hardwoods at this house in Barrington is welcome worked for American Floors of Riverside.
Daly: ``The time of the year, the type of jobs we do are in people's houses, so obviously around Christmastime when the tree goes up they don't want us here anymore.''
Owner Keith Daly winds up laying off some of his employees depending on the seasonal workload.
Daly: ``I lay my guys off at that time and if there's a week's worth, we pick up a job, I'll call them in and they'll complain - they don't want to come back in - because once they come back in they're off unemployment, and then to get back on unemployment they have to call and they just can't get through. They'd rather be stayed laid off than work that week.''
Hummel: ``And how does that affect you. You call them, there's a hesitancy to come in?''
Daly: ``I told one guy you do what you got to do but you're not going to be able to collect 'cause I'll tell them you refuse to come in. I force them to come in.''
Hummel: ``And that's part of unemployment. If work's available you've got to come in.''
Daly: ``They have to come in.''
Charlie Fogarty, director of the Department of Labor and Training, which handles unemployment insurance claims, says his program is funded entirely by federal money. And when the feds cut $3 million last summer, it forced Fogarty him to lay off 51 of the 150 people employed at DLT.
Fogarty: ``We were having difficulty maintaining good customer service even in the best of times, but obviously having that occur all at once had a big impact. It was kind of like a torpedo to the bow.''
So DLT has had to adjust to try and keep up with the work load - including a major push toward getting people to ditch the phone and use the internet. In fact 3/4 of all claims now come in online.
Fogarty: ``Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to get the benefits that they're entitled to. We want to be able to answer your call timely when you call in, but our goal is to have you not call in the first place.''
Hummel: ``Is that one of the words you want to get out?''
Fogarty: ``It is...''
Hummel: ``Get off the phone, get on the internet?''
Fogarty: ``If you're frustrated with the phone the best way to do it is with the internet 'cause you get a receipt - you know we've got it, we process them as quickly as they come in, we're not up to where we need to be, so I'm not saying it's going to get done tomorrow, but it makes it a much more efficient system.''
That's what Daly told his employees.
Daly: ``I said, `Just go online it'll be easy.'
He said `No, it won't because when you do it online you still have to talk to somebody.' I said, `No you just fill it out and then you collect.'"
That's when he wanted to find out for himself.
Daly: ``I laid myself off, normally I don't. But I laid myself off, 'cause there was no work so I could. So I did it online, I filled out all of the forms fine; everything worked out fine.
Couple of weeks later I don't hear anything so finally I got a call left on my machine that when I got online that my paperwork was filled, but I still have to speak to a representative, please call this number. And the number I had to call was the same number they're calling.''
Hummel: ``The same number your guys are calling and having a hard time getting through? It's not the special Bat phone, back line.''
Daly: ``No there is special phone, that's the number. So I called it and called it and called it. They were correct. You can't get through.''
Fogarty: ``We understand it's frustrating. When you're out of work and you want to work and you're trying to get the money in and your claim filed, we understand how tough things are. And I think the folks here are doing their best.
They're working every hour, overtime, Saturdays. I'm a little concerned about burnout at this time because we've been doing this since October. But we are committed to making every change possible to make the system better.''
Keith Daly has a few suggestions.
Daly: ``I did do it online, I thought it was great.''
Hummel: ``You would have been happy to have it completed online.''
Daly: ``Why didn't they just say, do this online, that would have been fine. I would have gone back online and completed whatever they wanted me to complete. I even went online - there's a little section that says email me. I emailed them the story and what I was going through and I couldn't get through - still nothing, I never got a reply from the email. That would have been nice too, they could have done it all by email. That didn't happen either.''
DLT spokeswoman says there is sometimes sensitive information that should only be handled by phone.
And while many people come to this NetWorkRI office run by the DLT to learn and use computers, Daly says his guys are already up to speed.
Hummel: ``You've got young guys who are familiar with the internet, know what they're doing. It's not an aversion to technology - it's the same thing you ran into: you apply online but then there's another step that you have to take that you can't take.''
Daly: ``It tells you, you still have to speak to a representative.''
Hummel: ``What's your message to the state on this?''
Daly: ``Just hire somebody to answer the phones. I think it would be less stressful if they could speak to someone.''
And it turns out, some relief is on the way.
Just this week, DLT announced it's going to bring back another 11 employees laid off last summer to help with the call load.
Fogarty: ``We're looking at process changers, we're looking at technology - we're doing that literally meeting every day to see what we can do. Things have gotten better, but obviously the customer service is not where we want it to be, where it needs to be and we're going to continue to work on it until we get it right.''
Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.