Oped: Call center layoffs hurt all unemployed residents

Sharon M. Dietrich and John Dodds
Community Legal Services and Philadelphia Unemployment Project, Inc.

A month ago, the Pennsylvania Senate left Harrisburg without passing HB 2375, a seemingly mundane bill to supplement federal funding for the unemployment compensation system.  Since then, reporters around the state have written almost every day about the consequences.

The Harrisburg #Savethe600 Unemployment Compensation Workers Rally is held outside the Labor and Industry Building in Harrisburg, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The narrative has been that state workers are caught in the middle of a political struggle between Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Senate. That’s because more than 500 civil servants will lose their job right before the holidays. We feel the pain of our state workers, and we also know that the stakes are actually much higher: The unemployment compensation system for all of Pennsylvania’s unemployed is about to grind to a halt, leaving unemployed workers without recourse and in many cases without income.

Wagner, amidst criticism, seeks investigation into call-center layoffs

We speak from experience. A quick and recent history lesson illustrates the consequences to the recently unemployed when the department loses staff. In August 2012, the state closed the Philadelphia UC Service Center, one of, at that time, nine call centers that managed the UC system.  The 75 civil servants who lost their jobs from that closure were the last of consistent reductions in UC positions that began in January 2012.  That year, the system lost a total of 322 positions.  The reason for the staff elimination was that inadequate federal funds could not alone support the administration of the UC system.

The effects of the Philadelphia layoffs were immediate. Before the layoffs, administration of the UC system was already stressed. But when the Philadelphia center closed, the calls and caseload from that facility spilled over to the remaining eight service centers, which were simply not equipped to deal with the increased volume. Getting through on the phone became like a winning lottery ticket.

Unemployed people dialed for hours, even days, before they got past a busy signal to wait on hold for hours on end. While they were listening to busy signals, their benefits were tied up.  Desperate and exasperated, unemployed workers flocked to CareerLink job search centers, each of which had one phone with a direct line to the UC service centers. Long lines snaking out the door of CareerLink and around the street corners, with workers queued up long before opening time, became a recurring image of the system’s struggles.

SEIU Local 668 President Tom Herman, center, speaks outside state Sen. Scott Wagner's office while, from left, AFSCME Council 13 Director Mickey Sgro, Dave Carey (dressed as the Grinch), Southeastern Pennsylvania Public Employees Council 88 Director Tom Tosti and labor department employee Tim Nebgen, of Woodward Township in Clearfield County, look on as they deliver Christmas cards, from soon-to-be furloughed Labor & Industry employees, to Wagner's office in York City, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The only human contact between Pennsylvania’s unemployed workers and the system that oversees the safety net they have invested in during their employment is a telephone call with service center staff. Many workers needed to talk to UC staff for reasons such as resolving problems with their already opened claims, finding out why there had been no decision on applications filed many weeks earlier, responding to questions as part of necessary investigations by UC staff or asking questions about the complicated UC rules. In a large percentage of cases, the desperate callers were trying to clear up issues that were preventing their unemployment benefits from being paid.

The remaining call centers responded by having almost all of their staff answer the phones. As a result, little staff remained to do other needed work, such as ruling on new claims for benefits. Pennsylvanians can file initial applications for benefits online as well as by phone, so some unemployed workers were able to bypass the busy signals and file their claims.  But because of the backlog in evaluating new claims, even those people who had applied for benefits online got caught up in the crash of the system.

Needless to say, these problems were the last thing that unemployed workers needed. They needed their unemployment benefits to help pay their bills until they found a new job. Keep in mind, people who lose their job, and have paid into the unemployment compensation system, only qualify for benefits if they separated from the job for qualifying reasons and if they continue to actively look for a new job. They needed to be looking for that next job, not redialing the phone all day. They did not need the added stress.

In response, distressed workers throughout Pennsylvania called legislative constituent services staff.  The result: in June 2013, the General Assembly almost unanimously approved Act 34, supplemental state funding for adequate administration of the UC system. Although the state appropriation was new, the supplement of the federal funds was not. Act 34 funds replaced depleted “Reed Act” funds, a one-time federal distribution to Pennsylvania of $337 million, which had been propping up the inadequate federal administrative funding for several years.

Locals, state employees, rally against layoffs, Wagner

Fast forward to today. The downsizing of the staff is even more daunting. Three call centers are being closed (Allentown, Altoona and Lancaster); more than 500 employees are being laid off.  The prior history alone suggests that this loss of staff will be a disaster.  But the situation we face in the immediate future is actually much worse. The month of January regularly has by far the heaviest claims load of any month. And this January features the possible new applications of 45,000 unemployed workers for whom the state Legislature recently restored eligibility.

To make matters worse, this layoff includes 25 percent of the state’s administrative law judges who handle appeals from the service centers. Now, the ranks of those who can fix the mistakes of overworked service center staff have been dangerously thinned, and the unemployed may have long wait times for their day in court. We face the possible complete collapse of the UC administrative system, harming those who seek the state’s assistance at their time of greatest and immediate need.

Placing blame for this situation is beside the point. What is needed is leadership to fix this debacle and fully staff the UC system. Pennsylvanians can only hope that a mediator emerges to broker the return of these state workers before thousands of unemployed Pennsylvanians suffer their absence.

— Sharon M. Dietrich is from Community Legal Services and John Dodds is from Philadelphia Unemployment Project Inc.