Legislators grill Pawlenty administration about long waits for jobless benefits

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Emotions ran high at a legislative hearing Monday where laidoff workers described the hardship of waiting several weeks to receive unemployment benefits – and administrators attempted to account for the failures of a new, more highly automated system.

After Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Dan McElroy apologized for the “inconvenience” facing many jobless Minnesotans, he was chastised by committee Chair Tom Rukavina: “It is more than an inconvenience. You’ve heard about bankruptcies, about people losing their homes, people’s credit rating being ruined!”

Problems began in October, when the department instituted a new, $43 million computer system for handling unemployment compensation applications, reporting and appeals. From the start it has been plagued by difficulties, several people testified before a joint hearing of state House and Senate committees that oversee workforce and economic development.

Long waits, frustration

“I’ve been going through hell with this for a while – excuse my language,” carpenter Greg DuBois of South St. Paul told lawmakers. He made his first call to apply for unemployment benefits on Nov. 19. After repeated calls and countless hours of being on hold, he first reached a live person on Nov. 28. DuBois finally received his initial benefit check on Jan. 9 – nearly two months after his layoff.

“I was approved for only $245 a week, but I should be getting about $300,” he said, so he is making more phone calls to get the payment corrected. Then last week, his wife got laid off.

“Is my wife going to have to put up with the same thing?” he asked.

Other workers testified that after long waits, they were denied benefits due to “pending issues” that were never explained.

“I had a lot of trouble with this system,” said Tom Gentilini, a laidoff foundry worker from Gilbert. “For two months, I did not get a check. I have excellent credit and it almost ruined it because I couldn’t pay my bills.”

Gentilini and his brother, Joe, finally got their benefits when they contacted Rukavina, who said his office has been deluged with calls. Rukavina and others said the problems include:

• Long waits – up to more than two hours – to apply by phone.

• Inability to reach a live person for help.

• Barriers to applying online, including the fact that many people don’t have easy access to a computer or a fast Internet connection.

• Language barriers, including long delays to get help in Spanish. Ismiel Ramirez of Owatonna said several of his Spanish-speaking co-workers have simply given up trying to get the unemployment benefits to which they’re entitled.

• Inadequate notice given when employers appeal a worker’s unemployment claim and difficulty in submitting documentation regarding appeals.

Mary Marrow, an attorney who represents low-income workers on unemployment cases, said her phone has rung off the hook since the new system was implemented. “I’m seeing my clients in crisis. I’m seeing clients losing their homes, having to look into shelters,” she said.

Despite years of experience in handling unemployment cases, Marrow said she is having difficulty navigating the new system on behalf of her clients.

“The majority of unemployment recipients are not represented and do not have people helping them through the system,” she said. “I’m concerned about these people.”

Untold numbers affected

No one could cite how many people are having problems with the new system, but McElroy acknowledged issuing “about 100 off-system checks” to workers who had contacted lawmakers and the governor’s office. However, he maintained, “The vast majority of people are getting paid and it is getting better.”

He said the unemployment program is “enormously complex” and some glitches were to be expected when replacing the previous system, which had been in place for 35 years. DEED is working with the contractor on software updates, he said.

McElroy said the new system has several advantages, including the ability to make weekly benefit payments.

In his testimony, he denied that cutting employees was a motivation behind the new system, but the department’s own Request for Proposals required contractors to show a 30 percent staff reduction.

The union representing many of the workers who handle unemployment claims said understaffing has made the transition to a new computer system much worse. Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, said many MAPE members are working 10 hour days and every Sunday to catch up on the backlog of applications and adjudications.

“There needs to be a focus on people to get the job done,” he said. McElroy said the department just hired 32 employees to assist in handling claims.

To make matters worse, Monroe said, DEED employees are afraid to speak up about problems.

“There is a fear factor in this agency that I have not seen” elsewhere, Monroe said. Rukavina concurred, saying he had received several letters from DEED employees who said they were too intimidated to speak publicly.

McElroy disagreed. “No one has to fear bringing concerns or problems to our attention.”

McElroy said he did not know when problems with the new computer system would be resolved, but said, “As we get out of the busier season (for unemployment applications), the challenges we hope will be behind us.”

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