The U.S. Labor Department will provide more than $4.4 million for technology upgrades to Arizona's strained unemployment insurance system.
The department announced $164.5 million in technology infrastructure grants for unemployment insurance programs in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The grants are aimed at improving the operation and security of unemployment insurance systems.
Arizona's unemployment insurance program is administered by the state Department of Economic Security.
"I am pleased that these grants will help states improve their technology infrastructure and better serve those in need," Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a statement. "Making sure that claims and benefits are processed and paid in a timely, consistent and secure manner is critical to providing workers with the income security needed to actively see re-employment."
Many claimants have voiced their frustration with the process of trying to obtain unemployment insurance from DES. Complaints range from not getting through on phone lines and Web site access problems to taking months to receive unemployment checks.
DES has seen a huge increase in unemployment insurance claims, and that continues to rise, said Steve Meissner, director of communications.
"About 18 months ago, we were providing unemployment benefits to about 25,000 people a week, and now we're up to 146,000 to 147,000," he said. "Arizona has one of the higher rates of unemployment in the country and we're trying to accommodate that, not only to make sure people are getting benefits on a timely basis, but also that they're getting assistance to get back into the work force."
The federal funds are to be used for projects to improve services for both unemployment insurance claimants and employers, including modernizing systems to improve and speed payments, tax collections and appeals processing, helping consumers avoid debit card fees when collecting benefits, improvements in information technology contingency and security plans, and strategies to improve overall program integrity.
"We have a couple of challenges," Meissner said. "One is the computer systems and the automated phone systems, and all those things that we use to try to keep up. The problem is staffing. We've had to really upgrade our call centers and the people who process unemployment claims, so this technology (grant) probably would apply to the computer systems and the phone systems that we use to process the calls and the claims."
Arizona's unemployment rate was 9.1 percent in August, up from 5.9 percent in August 2008, according to the state Department of Commerce.
The federal government pays the administrative costs of the DES unemployment insurance program, Meissner said.
"There's a lot of demand on us to try to keep up with this growth in unemployment," he said. "Arizona's budget is stretched fairly thin, so it's a good thing that we're getting that kind of assistance."