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Job growth at the unemployment office

Joseph Carr, 24, was unemployed when his mother recently clued him into a job advertisement. The State of New Jersey was looking for workers to help process the soaring number of initial claims for unemployment insurance.

Joseph Carr, 24, was unemployed when his mother recently clued him into a job advertisement. The State of New Jersey was looking for workers to help process the soaring number of initial claims for unemployment insurance.

A former administrative assistant at a church, Carr applied for the job and started work Nov. 10. After training, Carr will be assigned to the state unemployment office in Vineland, one of dozens of new hires who came on the job in October and November.

"Everybody is pretty urgent about learning what to do and passionate about doing as much as they can for the claimants," said Carr, already talking like a bureaucrat. Carr, of Cumberland County, had been out of work for five months before landing the job.

The recession has created a need for workers like Carr as states across the nation struggle to handle burgeoning new claims for unemployment benefits.

The U.S. Labor Department reported today that initial claims nationwide rose last week to 573,000 - the highest weekly total in 26 years and a sign that the economic rut seems to be deepening. It also was far more than the 525,000 economists expected.

These claims are filed by workers newly laid off from their jobs and seeking unemployment benefits for the first time.

More than 10.3 million Americans are unemployed.

To handle the onslaught of new claims, states are extending hours, adding phone lines, and hiring workers, bringing on temps, transferring employees from other departments, and even recalling retirees.

And it's still not enough.

Busy signals, long holding times - it's all part of the package as laid-off workers, already devastated by losing their jobs, have to cope with an overwhelmed bureaucracy.

"We see a lot of pain and a lot of difficulty in the labor market," said David Socolow, New Jersey Labor Department commissioner. "The wait times are far longer than our customers want or than we want."

In Delaware, the latest wallop began Monday, when the General Motors Corp. plant in Wilmington went to one shift from two. Now, 400 laid-off autoworkers are filing for benefits this week, said Thomas MacPherson, director of Delaware's division of unemployment insurance.

By year-end, they will be joined by 1,000 autoworkers from the soon-to-be-mothballed Chrysler plant 10 miles away in Newark.

"At peak periods, we have busy signals," MacPherson said of the unit's telephone response.

"It's horrendous," said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, an advocacy group for the unemployed in the city. "We have people calling us all the time because they can't get through."

But, Dodds said, states seem to be trying to ease the situation. Otherwise, he said, he would be doing what he has done in past economic slowdowns - rally workers and agitate for improvement.

In Pennsylvania, 81 temporary workers have been hired, said David Smith, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industry. Even more are being brought in starting Monday, bringing total staffing to about 830 from the department's usual permanent workforce of 600. By the time the department finishes its hiring, the staff will be nearly doubled to 1,100, Smith said.

"We estimate that we have increased our phone coverage by more than 25 percent over the past month," he said. "We intend to increase it further as we bring new staff on board and train them."

Smith said the state had paid more than $400 million in unemployment benefits this year through last Friday, 41 percent more than in the same period a year ago.

In New Jersey, 44 employees have been added to the 150 who normally review new claims to see if applicants qualify, Socolow said.

In addition, 40 telephone operators will augment the 200 already on staff, and 46 outreach workers will join 100 to 120 already assigned to the state's One-Stop Career Centers, he said.

Delaware has added people to every unemployment office, MacPherson said.

While Internet applications for benefits have increased - 60 percent of initial jobless claims in Pennsylvania are now filed online - reliance on telephone systems has meant anxiety for some, said Dodds at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

In the past, he said, the unemployed had to wait in long and sometimes humiliating lines for clerks to review their claims, Dodds said. But in the end, they would know that their paperwork had been processed.

"Now, they get busy signals, and they never find out if someone is there. You can't get a response," he said. "I think some of it is that the phone system has limits on how many lines it can take."