06 February 2012

Large Call Volume Makes for Frustrating Unemployment Claims

First appeared in Record-Eagle
Henry Kroesing takes a voluntary layoff from his job at the local Sara Lee plant each December so younger employees with families and mortgages can work their full schedules.

State unemployment benefits help Kroesing, 71, make ends meet during the down time. But not this year.
In January, the state Unemployment Insurance Agency's automated computer system told the Traverse City resident he wasn't certified to receive jobless benefits, though he'd followed the same routine for years.

Kroesing turned to state officials to resolve the glitch, and that's when his frustration mounted. Hours turned into days as he tried to reach a live voice on the state's telephone help line.

Kroesing repeatedly called, to no avail.

"For the first two weeks of January, I couldn't get through," Kroesing said.

He wasn't alone. Residents across northern Michigan shared his frustration as they ran into bureaucratic brick walls while trying to obtain unemployment benefits.

State officials came up with two excuses: a glut of inquiries created by new claims from seasonal layoffs in the retail and auto industries, and a federal unemployment benefit extension approved over the holidays.

"All those factors played into the large volume of calls we received," said Chawn Greene-Farmer, spokeswoman for Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, the agency that oversees the unemployment insurance group.

On one morning last month Kroesing began calling the unemployment agency's automated number as soon its office opened, while his stepson dialed on another phone.

"I was calling, he was calling; we still couldn't get through," he said. "We sat here for seven hours that one day. Finally, I just gave up."

'A lot of confusion'

The same daytime nightmare confronted Copemish resident Todd Humphrey last month after he committed a minor error while filing his online claim. He tried to contact someone at the state to fix the problem.

"I called for four hours and never got through," Humphrey said. "When you've got a (child) at home, you can't spend all day on the phone."

Greene-Farmer said the state typically prepares for and receives an increase in post-holiday calls, thanks to seasonal layoffs common in many parts of Michigan.

But Congress dealt a wild card this year — a holiday season extension of jobless benefits that muddied the water but ultimately didn't change the status of most Michigan residents' claims.

"There was a lot of confusion about that," Greene-Farmer said. "People had questions. That's understandable."

Kroesing finally drove to the state Public Resolution Office office in Gaylord on Jan. 18 to seek answers. There, he encountered one state employee and more than two dozen others — people from Levering, Petoskey, Mackinaw City — who had the same problems with their unemployment claims.

His perseverance paid off. He received an unemployment check a couple days after the face-to-face meeting in Gaylord.

"The gentleman was very polite; he knew the answers," Kroesing said.

Kroesing missed out on two weeks of jobless benefits, though, a shortage that put a crimp in his household budget.

"The utility bills, the groceries; I depend on it," he said. "I've never encountered the problems we've encountered this year. Never. It's very upsetting."

Humphrey also climbed into his vehicle and slogged through a snowy drive from northern Manistee County to Gaylord to reach the state office at 7:30 a.m. A state employee quickly resolved the problem.
But an hours-long trip in rough weather seemed a bit much.

"I had money for gas; some people don't," he said. "It'd be nice if they could free up some people for phone time."

It's stressful for families to wait for jobless benefits, especially when they can't get answers on their claims' status, Humphrey said.

"The bills get backed up, and you get off-schedule. Pretty soon people start calling you wondering why they aren't getting paid," Humphrey said. "You've got to tighten your belt a little bit; pay the bills and see what's left over for groceries and gas."

'Frustrated and upset'

Kroesing and others sought answers at the Michigan Works office in Traverse City. But staffers there said their hands are tied.

Unemployment insurance regulations are complex, and Michigan Works employees can't provide counseling, other than to offer standard advice such as calling during less busy periods.

"We're in a real Catch-22 situation," said Jan Warren, director of the Michigan Works offices in northern Michigan. "People come in very frustrated and upset, and they need help."

The offices allow visitors to use their phones or computers to seek jobless claims information. But that's no guarantee of success.

"It's been harder and harder for people to get through," said Jane Sage, who manages Michigan Works' Traverse City office. "We have the same (telephone) number everybody else does. We certainly can't make recommendations or suggestions."

Greene-Farmer said the UIA office employs about 300 workers in its customer service division to handle both phone and online inquiries about jobless benefits.

"We can re-assign staff to those areas as need be to handle that volume, and that's what we've been doing," she said.

 She described the volume of calls as "extremely high" in early January — the agency wouldn't give a specific number — and acknowledged that many clients couldn't get through.

"We are concerned," she said. "We're trying to meet the demand as best we can with the resources we have available."

State lawmakers also heard from residents frustrated by unemployment claim troubles.

"There are multiple issues with unemployment claims with constituents," said Eric Dean, chief of staff to state Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City.

Dean said Department of Licensing officials sent a late January email to lawmakers to explain recent telephone tie-ups, as well as their response to the problem. Lawmakers try to help but can't do much more than refer residents to state websites or phone help lines, Dean said.

Greene-Farmer said the agency is looking at other solutions, including expanding the number of PRO offices such as the one in Gaylord elsewhere in Michigan. They also constantly study call volumes to determine where assistance workers are most needed.

"We're going to continue to monitor what's happening and see what our demand is," she said.

Kroesing hopes his problems are resolved for now. But his recent experience will make him think twice about accpeting a layoff to benefit others.

"Sometimes I wish I wouldn't have taken the layoff," he said. "If I'd been aware of the problem, I wouldn't have taken it."

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