Some people in need of unemployment insurance checks are having to wait more than a month for their money because the state closed a telephone call center that handled filings, according to former call center employees.
Arizona Department of Economic Security officials tout statistics that indicate claims are processed in three weeks, but the tallies do not include cases that are diverted because of special circumstances.
Those cases previously were investigated by state employees stationed in call centers in Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma. But since the state closed the Phoenix call center on March 3, the cases largely have been piling up at the Tucson center.
“With Phoenix and Tucson working together, there was like a four-week wait. Now, it’s at least eight — and I’ve seen up to 12,” said a former Phoenix call center employee who didn’t want to be identified because the employee currently holds a different position within DES.
DES officials downplayed the delays. The Phoenix call center’s closure has slowed processing by “a week or two,” but the majority still are being completed within five weeks, said DES spokeswoman Liz Barker.
Benefit seekers with special circumstances are subject to investigations to determine whether they qualify for unemployment insurance benefits.
Among the circumstances: Separation from military service; recent work experience in more than one state; and disputes with former employers concerning ex-employees’ salaries or whether the exemployees were laid off or fired.
Internal DES audits indicate that in January, which was before the Phoenix call center closed, 75.5 percent of all special cases were resolved within three weeks, Barker said.
In April, which is the most recent month that statistics are available, only 25 percent of special cases were resolved within three weeks, she said. The amount rose to 48 percent within four weeks and 75 percent within five weeks.
It would be rare for a case to linger for 12 weeks, Barker said.
And the delays for special cases don’t even take into consideration the difficulties unemployed people encounter simply trying to get through to the remaining call centers.
Calls placed to the Phoenix help line at (602) 364-2722 are supposed to be routed to the Tucson call center, but the lines are continually busy.
The Tribune tried placing dozens of calls during a fourday period last week. The result was the same every time — a busy signal.
DES officials have no way of tracking how many callers get busy signals, Barker said.
However, since the Tribune reported the busy signals on Sunday, DES officials have started to explore ways to reduce the problem, Barker said.
Among the options: Hire more staff to field calls and provide an automated response that would offer alternative filing information.
People also can apply for unemployment insurance on the Internet at www.azui.com or in person at DES offices.
Mesa information technology worker Dennis Benzer said the help line was no help at all to him for days. “It is an abysmal fact that they scaled down the call center, but worse than that, they have too few lines going into the system,” he said.
The number benefit seekers call for questions and problems with existing unemployment insurance accounts is the same number others try to use to establish accounts.
He signed up via the Internet, but then tried the help line when he encountered a problem. He started dialing May 30, he said.
Benzer tried all day, then the next day and the day after that. He finally got through on the fourth day.
“But only because I started dialing at exactly 8 a.m., figuring their system was using the universal atomic time clock and turned on right then. Oh, and I had to wait over 20 minutes for a live person to get to me,” he said.
He cashed in unused vacation pay and received a small severance package from his former employer, which cushioned the blow somewhat, he said.
“But in about two weeks, not having the weekly check will hurt somewhat,” he said.
The length of delays for the special-determination cases are common knowledge among the 54 former call center employees who have since been reassigned to different jobs within DES, according to three who spoke to the Tribune.
After the call center closed, the backlog of unprocessed claims grew so quickly that Division of Employment and Rehabilitation Services assistant director Pat Harrington called for a meeting of the former call center employees on April 27.
About half of the former call center employees attended the meeting at the Capitol Tower in Phoenix, said an attendee.
Officials asked the former employees to process 45 or more claims a week in addition to their duties in their new positions.
“While use of the Internet for new applications and ongoing claims is steadily increasing, we have a number of pending cases we believe can be alleviated within a short time frame with temporary assistance from former (unemployment insurance) employees,” Harrington wrote in an April 26 e-mail to the former employees.
At the time, it was understood that 7,000 benefit seekers were on a waiting list that stretched six to eight weeks, the attendee said. The former call center employees declined to accept the work.
“That wasn’t feasible at all, because there’s no way you can do this job and that job on top of each other,” the attendee said.
Instead, DES hired 26 temporary workers to help clear the backlog, Barker said. Twenty-one temps were assigned to the Tucson call center and five were allocated to the smaller Yuma call center.
“I don’t know how long they will be with us. I think they’ve come in in the last six weeks or so,” she said.
DES officials also have reworked the online application in a way designed to produce fewer discrepancies.