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News : State Unemployment Call Center Plagued by Long Wait Times
Cranston, RI, USA, February, 2016 -- Wait times at the state's unemployment call center have spiked in recent months, leaving unemployed Rhode Islanders on hold for weekly averages as high as 47 minutes and highlighting a persistent problem that still plagues the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.
The agency has struggled with such delays since at least 2008, when callers waited hours on hold — or the system simply hung up on them when it couldn't handle up to 24,000 calls a day during the Great Recession.
As three consecutive administrations have worked to fix the problem, average weekly wait times have ebbed and flowed: 31 minutes, June 2010; 50 minutes, December 2012; 40 minutes, February 2015; 7 minutes and 41 seconds, the last week of September 2015. The worst in recent months: 47 minutes, the weeks ending Jan. 13 and Jan. 27.
At this time of year, the number of people filing unemployment claims peaks, DLT Director Scott Jensen said. Landscapers and construction workers tend to file claims in mid-December as the weather turns colder; some manufacturers close for up to two holiday weeks; bus drivers, substitute teachers and school food-service workers file during school breaks; and then retail and hospitality business slows after the holidays, prompting layoffs at shops and restaurants.
The DLT has made recent, moderate improvements to its system, Jensen said, and those had helped reduce wait times during slower unemployment-claim periods.
"But when we get slammed in a peak, the weaknesses we have in the call center are magnified," Jensen said in an interview. "And we still have problems ... . And it's not acceptable."
Average wait times rose to 29 minutes the first week of December, dropped to 17 minutes and 25 minutes the next two weeks and were then 30 minutes or more for eight consecutive weeks, according to data the DLT shared with The Providence Journal.
Jensen also attributed longer wait times to other factors:
— DLT has fewer employees handling calls — 42 this year compared with 48 last year — because federal money for such workers drops when the unemployment rate falls.
— The agency had six new employees, still learning the system.
— Due to when Christmas and New Year's fell, the agency had fewer opportunities this season to add extra overtime shifts to handle increased call volume: 22 this year compared with 25 last year.
In October, Jensen told The Journal the state agency had improved how quickly its employees determine whether people are eligible for benefits and how quickly it pays initial unemployment claims. The agency had struggled for years to meet federal standards for that work.
But now, Jensen said it's time to fix the DLT's next long-term problem: initial call-wait times.
The problems are separate, Jensen said: One is the time for people to "get in the door," and the other is processing claims "once you're in the door."
After working last year to fix the "once you're in the door" problem, the agency is no longer on the federal labor department's warning list, Jensen said.
But the agency is again identifying "pain points" at the call center and turning its attention to fixing the problem of "getting in the door," which likely will require "100 changes," Jensen said.
Although 80 percent of claimants file for unemployment online, 20 percent still call the center to file, and when people must certify weekly that they're still eligible for benefits, about half call in, DLT spokesman Michael J. Healey said. Some callers are playing phone tag with DLT employees, some have computers that don't work with the claims-filing site and some say they haven't read all the benefits information from the DLT because "there's too much paperwork," Healey said.
Call wait times should start dropping soon, Jensen said, because claims typically drop after the holiday rush. The next peak period is typically July.
"You know, we can't handle a peak, and we need to handle peaks," Jensen said.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2016