NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Unemployed workers in Connecticut are having a little bit easier time filing their claims this week due to a mass phone call protest organized by state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven (D-94).
Holder-Winfield noticed an increasing flow of complaints from constituents in his hard-hit largely African American neighborhood. Unemployed workers could not get through to report their status to the Department of Labor (DOL) on the phone or via the web site for days at a time. When he asked Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, for a response, her reply that it would take six months to fix the computer system was so shocking to him that he set up a Facebook page titled, "No, Governor Rell, DOL's Response Is Not Sufficient."
Soon unemployed workers from all sectors and parts of the state began posting their horror stories there.
A boating industry worker on winter layoff said, "I have to spend my entire Sunday calling the DOL to file a claim because their web site is always down! Every time I log on it says 'Due to a high volume of claims please call your local DOL office.' What the web site does not tell you is that you will have to call hundreds of times between Sunday and Tuesday to file your claim! My cell phone records show 260 calls in a three day period. It's insane! The system is horrible."
One woman said, "I even stay up in the middle of the night and try to do my claim but it is always busy."
"I have tried for five days to get a live person on the phone and all day getting a message to call back," said another worker. "I have gone to the office in Hamden after the frustration with getting someone on the phone to be told I have to call in, and so I pray I never have a problem that requires speaking to someone."
Police officers are now posted at the DOL's Job Centers because the unemployed workers who come in seeking assistance are infuriated to find they cannot speak with anyone in person. Because of the governor's failure to replace Department of Labor workers as they retire, at times there are no DOL workers on site, and it is only possible to talk with untrained subcontracted staff.
One worker who had to speak with someone said, "I missed filing a week of unemployment because my mother unexpectedly went into the hospital. That forces you to talk to someone. Five weeks later, calling every day, multiple times and I had still not gotten through. Finally I e-mailed the DOL ‘contact us' link on their site .... they replied that they would file my claims, but by all rights I should forfeit my claims for filing late and reminded me that I had from Sunday to Friday to file."
At first, the governor did not get the picture that emergency action was required. Public exposure of her lack of concern for public service forced her to change position. On Jan. 8, the same day that the new job figures were released showing 85,000 more jobs had been lost nationally with unemployment now over 10 percent, Rell announced that the problem of filing claims would be addressed in an expedited manner.
"We are on uncharted ground," she said. "The demand for unemployment insurance is up 40 percent from a year ago and the Labor Department is issuing between 150,000 - 260,000 checks each week totaling approximately $55 million."
In the last two years the official unemployment rate in Connecticut increased from 4.0 percent to 8.5 percent. Real unemployment figures, including those who are not collecting benefits, are at least twice as high. In Holder-Winfield's Newhallville neighborhood in New Haven, unemployment is three times as high or more.
In this situation the Republican governor has repeatedly vetoed legislation to tax the rich in the state in order to raise revenues to maintain staffing levels and services. She continues to insist on more cuts to the very programs that serve working-class families.
A week of public pressure resulted in the governor ordering "temporary return of about 30 experienced call center workers who recently retired and approval for overtime for 65 other call center specialists ... to add a full new day of service, opening Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m."
In addition the computer system is being upgraded from one to five servers and more than double the number of phone lines.
Two days later, the posts to Holder-Winfield's Facebook page reflected the changes that were won. "Wow. I got on-line and filed within two minutes!!! This is great!!! Finally not an all day problem!!" said one person.
Meanwhile, at the national level the fight for job creation is heating up as a solution to the crush of calls to Unemployment Insurance offices and the countless human tragedies that represents.