Answers to Unemployment Questions Remain Elusive

Federal cuts and an obsolete computer network created a perfect storm at the Department of Labor during the coronavirus pandemic

NBC Universal, Inc.

Frustration remains for many in Connecticut out of work due to coronavirus.

People have reached out to NBC Connecticut saying they filed for unemployment weeks ago, and still have not received any assistance.  Others have said they can’t get their questions answered when they call or email.

Last week the Department of Labor (DOL) said it would soon start ramping up its response team.

So far, Ray Shaw of Hartford said he has not gotten through even after hours of trying. 

“We hear all this information on television with people like the commissioner, saying, you’re gonna receive an email you know, what to do next, and you know, stuff like that doesn’t happen.” 

Ruben Dacosta of Middletown expressed equal frustration.

“It just sounds like we’ve fallen through the crack and we have to somehow make our way through the next month or so to be able to survive.”

The DOL said it gets a significant portion of its funding from the federal government.  It explained budget cuts by Washington in 2015 prompted dramatic cuts in its call center.  

Back then the DOL had a call center staffed with 130 people.  The cuts brought its headcount down to 40 in 2016, and just five after attrition and retirements.  

The agency then moved to a 24/7 internet helpline and application portal, in conjunction with in-person help at multiple job centers across the state.  

The internet helpline has been overwhelmed since the coronavirus pandemic struck.  The DOL warns on its website that if you email a question, “…a response can be expected in 5 weeks, depending on volume.”  At the same time, the DOL closed its job centers due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

The agency has added roughly two dozen people to answer general questions via the phone, with plans to hire as many as 65 more.  NBC Connecticut called the helpline more than 10 times to see if anyone picked up.  Each time, we heard an outgoing message, and then, a busy signal.  

The DOL has said it is examining other creative solutions to get more staff answering unemployment application questions.  It has been training department employees every day to beef up their unemployment insurance knowledge, and working extra hours to get to as many emails as possible.

A spokeswoman added, “…this is a situation no state ever expected to handle.”  The agency has processed two years worth of unemployment claims in less than two months.

In addition, the DOL has still been using a computer network that is roughly 40 years old.  It said its programmers have written code so that starting this week, the agency will begin sending out the $600 weekly payments of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), that is in addition to state unemployment assistance.

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