AT THE OFFICE: Job hunters and the unemployment call centers alike are frustrated
Like many unemployed job hunters, Taylor Whitman wrestles with financial panic. The Overland Park, Kan., resident says his state unemployment benefits have run out and he wants to know whether he's getting extended federal benefits. But after a w...
Like many unemployed job hunters, Taylor Whitman wrestles with financial panic.
The Overland Park, Kan., resident says his state unemployment benefits have run out and he wants to know whether he's getting extended federal benefits.
But after a week of dialing the Kansas unemployment call center, getting busy signals, or working through a series of button pushes, getting put on hold and then disconnected, he hadn't reached a live person.
For five days straight, Whitman said, he dialed -- on and off from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
"The lines are very backed up," acknowledges Kathy Toelkes, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Labor.
The department increased its Topeka call center staffing from 33 to 95 employees, and "they don't sit on their hands or let the phones ring unanswered," she promises.
Last week, they answered a daily average of 1,600 calls. But there are nearly 100,000 people claiming jobless benefits in Kansas from state or federal programs.
Because of federal extensions, some workers are eligible for up to 86 weeks of benefits, and many of them have complicated questions.
Kansas used much of a $4.9 million recovery act grant to add call center staff. "But it takes weeks to train new workers to handle all the general inquiry calls we get," Toelkes notes. "It's also the busiest time of the year, so it's frustrating on our part, too."
Unemployment offices in Kansas and Missouri emphasize that some frustrations could ease if claimants would read the state Web sites thoroughly.
If phone calls are necessary, try to avoid the busiest days, Mondays and Fridays.
The situation is modestly less frustrating in Missouri, where there are four unemployment call centers with 240 fully trained phone answerers, 110 of whom can be on the phone at any one time.
An additional 90 contract workers were hired (with about $3 million in federal recovery act money) to handle the more basic initial claims questions, according to Amy Susan, the Missouri spokeswoman.
Still, the call volume is straining the system. Nearly 197,000 people are receiving state or federal jobless benefits in Missouri, about 60,000 more than a year ago. They're flooding Missouri call centers with about 7,000 calls a day.
Toelkes and Susan emphasize that call volume -- and claimants' panic -- could be reduced.
"People need to read the mail we send them thoroughly," Susan advises. "We understand that people are desperate, but if they'd take the time to fill out the questionnaires, or file online, or read the online information completely, they might not need to call. Almost nothing in the process has to be done on the phone."
Another tip: Professionals in the state work force development offices and career sections of large libraries can help navigate the online unemployment system.