Gov. Janet Napolitano has ordered Department of Economic Security director David Berns to fix the state’s beleaguered unemployment insurance program.
“She’s directing that it be addressed immediately,” said Napolitano’s spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer.
DES purchased a telephone system that is scheduled to be operational this week or next week.
In addition, 12 staff positions — although temporary — have been created to process unemployment insurance claims.
The moves are intended to put a human voice on the receiving end of the
state help line for unemployment insurance. Since March, the help line routinely has provided nothing more than a busy signal.
The new phone system is designed to answer calls even when no operators are available, said Pat Harrington, assistant director of the Division of Employment and Re- habilitation Services.
If operators are busy, a recorded voice will tell callers how to apply for benefits online or in person at DES offices.
“Of course, that’s not the greatest answer in the world, but it is better — some people believe — than hearing ‘busy,’ ” he said.
The phone system also will log the number of people who get the recording.
In addition, DES is upgrading its technical operations after cutting back its human operations three months ago.
DES closed the state’s busiest unemployment call center in an “efficiency” move on March 3.
They also reassigned 54 employees who previously had processed unemployment insurance claims at the Phoenix-based call center.
The work was supposed to be absorbed at smaller call centers in Tucson and Yuma, but problems escalated quickly.
Benefits seekers heard busy signals on the help line for days.
And those with anything other than the most simple claims often went without unemployment checks for weeks, even months, because of a backlog of claims.
“The governor is aware —and not happy — that there was a problem there, and that this had been allowed to get into this situation,” L’Ecuyer said.
The state hired 21 temporary workers for the Tucson call center and five for the Yuma center, said Department of Economic Security spokeswoman Liz Barker. Yet the problems persisted.
The Tribune first reported problems on June 11. Napolitano met the next day with human services policy adviser Tracy Wareing, who, two days later, spoke with Berns and DES officials.
“We asked them to come in and said, ‘OK, tell us exactly what’s going on here and what you’re going to do to remedy the situation. Obviously, you need more staff and a phone system that doesn’t give you the droning busy signal,’ ” Wareing said.
The phone system will cost $2,000 a month, Harrington said. The Phoenix call center cost $300,000 a month to operate.
DES officials closed it because the state’s portion of federal funding for unemployment insurance had dwindled, Harrington said. Over the last six years, the state has lost $6.8 million — nearly 20 percent — of its annual funding.
In 2002, Arizona received $33.6 million in federal funds, Harrington said, but slipped to $29.7 million in 2003. The downward trend continued until this year, when it hit $26.8 million.
The closure of the Phoenix call center also slowed processing for benefit seekers whose circumstances required investigations by DES.
Internal DES audits showed that before the closure, 76 percent of those cases were resolved within three weeks.
In April, only 25 percent were resolved within three weeks, while 75 percent were handled within five weeks.
Factors triggering an investigation include separation from military service and disputes with former employers concerning ex-employees’ salaries.
DES can hire the 12 additional temporary workers through savings from the closure of the Phoenix call center, Harrington said. The staff will be stationed in Tucson.
The unemployment insurance help line is (602) 364-2722.
Applications also can filed at www.azui.com or in person at the state’s One-Stop Employment Centers.
A list of locations is available at: www.de.state.az.us /esa/onestop.asp.