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No technical difficulties in Mo. filing system

Friday, January 9, 2009

Department of Labor has taken steps to handle influx of calls

SIKESTON -- Unlike some other states, Missouri's Department of Labor hasn't experienced any technical difficulties with its electronic unemployment filing systems. However, its staff have been overwhelmed by the influx of the thousands of newly jobless seeking benefits.

Wanda Seeney, public information administrator for Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations in Jefferson City, said neither Missouri's computer or phone systems have broken down despite the increase in traffic from those

"We've taken several steps to deal with the influx of calls into the center. We've expanded our claims centers' hours where customers can call in 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. versus 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. We've cross-trained 21 staff members, and we're in the process of hiring 35 emergency temporary helpers, and we have some already on board," Seeney said Thursday afternoon.

Six retirees have also been brought into to assist the Department of Labor's 202 full-time employees, Seeney said. Staff are also working overtime daily and on Saturdays, she said.

"It has really kept our staff really busy," Seeney said about the surge in the number of jobless Missourians.

In November 2008 -- the most recent data available -- 65,759 unemployment insurance benefits were paid out to Missourians compared to 39,163 paid out in November 2007, Seeney said.

"Our challenge is our staffing," Seeney said. "We've hired more staff, and it takes time to train our staff, but we're taking whatever steps we can to continue to provide quality customer service to Missourians."

Missouri's filing system does allow for the capability to extend telephone services by adding more lines as necessary, Seeney said. Currently, the department has 130 phone lines available for its staff and have purchased 100 additional lines. The additional lines are expected to be activated soon, she said.

About 4.5 million Americans are collecting jobless benefits, a 26-year high, so the Web sites and phone systems now commonly used to file for benefits are being tested like never before.

Even those that are holding up under the strain are in many cases leaving filers on the line for hours, or kissing them off with an ''all circuits are busy'' message. Agencies have been scrambling to hire hundreds more workers to handle the calls.

Systems in New York, North Carolina and Ohio were shut down completely by technical glitches and heavy volume, and labor officials in several other states are reporting higher-than-normal use.

''Regardless of when you call, be prepared to wait and just hang on. Try not to get frustrated,'' said Howard Cosgrove, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which boosted its staff of telephone operators by 25 percent last month to cope with a phone system that has been overloaded for weeks. ''We sympathize, we're on their side, we're doing our best to help them out.''

The nation's unemployment rate in November zoomed to 6.7 percent, a 15-year high. Economists predict it will rise to 7 percent in December, with another 500,000 jobs probably cut last month. The government releases its monthly employment report on Friday.

New York's phone and Internet claims system started to buckle on Monday afternoon and was out of service completely for the first half of Tuesday while as many as 10,000 people per hour tried to get in, said Leo Rosales, a state Labor Department spokesman.

Although that was an unusually high number of calls, Rosales said it was a software glitch in an authentication system used to verify filers' identities that caused the system to crash.

About 256,000 people are collecting unemployment in New York, up from about 184,000 at this time last year.

North Carolina's Web site crashed twice this week under a rush of claims as that state set one-day records for both the amount of benefits paid and the number of transactions.

On Sunday and Monday, the number of North Carolinians trying to sign up online for new or continuing benefits was about triple what it was before the economic slowdown started, according to the state Employment Security Commission. That volume, together with a phone line problem, overwhelmed the agency's computers and prevented some people from filing claims.

The system was working again by Monday afternoon after the agency added another server and demand decreased, officials said.

Callers to Michigan's main phone line handling applications for jobless benefits got an ''all circuits are busy now'' message Tuesday afternoon. Officials in Michigan, which had the nation's highest jobless rate at 9.6 percent in November, recently began urging applicants to seek benefits through a state Internet site instead. Michigan counted about 473,000 people as unemployed in November, up from about 370,000 a year ago.

Unemployment agencies from Kentucky to Alaska also are reporting long hold times for callers and slowdowns for those filing online because of higher volume.

In Kentucky, where claims rose to 40,400 in November from 23,400 a year earlier, a flood of new filers overwhelmed the state's unemployment Web site and phone lines on Monday, when more than 8,000 people filed initial claims, said Kim Brannock, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Education Cabinet, which oversees the state unemployment office.

Besides the increase in job cuts, the federal government in July extended unemployment benefits, which Seeney also attributes to the volume of calls. The extension impacted 50,000 Missourians, she said.

"Also, we had some flooding and tornadoes in the spring which prevented people from reporting to work and us being open. We also had information put out about persons who lived in those affected areas," Seeney said.

Seeney encouraged newly jobless Missourians to file for unemployment immediately.

"As soon as they find out they will be without a job, they should contact us. They can file an initial claim online," Seeney said.

Missouri unemployment claims can be filed at www.moclaim.com. Also a list of most frequently asked questions is available online.