PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Mark Simmons began dialing Rhode Island's unemployment call center at 8 a.m. on a recent Monday. He got a busy signal. He tried 67 more times before the automated system picked up and told him that because of heavy call volume, he should try back another time.
People applying for unemployment benefits in this state with the nation's highest jobless rate must wait on hold an average of 51 minutes. Not only that, but some of those interviewed by The Associated Press say that their benefits are often weeks late and that when they try to speak to a human about the problem, they're referred to a computer.
"This is about whether I can buy groceries or whether I'm going to be evicted," said Simmons, a 42-year-old Army veteran who has gotten by on part-time wages and unemployment since losing his job at a Providence bookstore in 2011. "I sit in my apartment, dialing the number again and again, when I'm supposed to be looking for jobs. It's like, what do I pay taxes for?"
While many states are well on the way to recovery 2½ years after the end of the Great Recession, financially ailing Rhode Island stands apart. And it inadvertently made things more difficult for its unemployed with an automated system that can't handle the demand, and a remarkably ill-timed decision to lay off scores of workers at the call center.
State officials acknowledge the problems and say they are rehiring staff and have upgraded the automated system. But the mess has illustrated how slowly and painfully recovery has come to Rhode Island.
With a population of just over 1 million, Rhode Island has 57,800 jobless people and is tied with Nevada for the highest unemployment in the nation, at 10.2 percent, as it seeks to reverse a long, slow decline in business that began well before the recession.
Once home to a robust manufacturing economy that produced jewelry, heavy machinery and other goods, Rhode Island has struggled for decades to attract the kind of jobs in health care and high tech that have helped its New England neighbors make the transition into the 21st century. Unemployment in Rhode Island peaked during the recent downturn at 11.9 percent, and the state is projecting a $69 million budget shortfall this year.
During the 2007-09 recession, the federal government gave states extra money to beef up unemployment-office staffing, but the dollars have dried up as the jobs picture has improved across the country.
Last summer, faced with a $3 million cut in federal aid, Rhode Island's labor department laid off 67 workers, including about one-third of the 150 people at the call center. Telephone wait times jumped to more than two hours, according to the union representing the laid-off workers.
Then Congress voted to extend emergency unemployment assistance, heaping more work on an already overstretched Rhode Island system that now handles 28,000 claims a week.
While the automated phone and online system takes claim information from people filing for benefits, it's up to state workers to process and approve the claims. When too many people call in at once, the phone system becomes overwhelmed.
Rhode Island has since secured federal money to refill 33 positions at the call center, and officials hope to move to a mostly Web-based system by the end of the year. Continued...