Ten weeks after the state shifted to a new, online-only system for filing unemployment claims, some jobless Berkshire residents are still encountering major difficulties seeking benefits.
When attempting to call representatives at the state's Division of Unemployment Assistance in Boston, a few have endured waits of up to several hours only to be disconnected. Delays of several months or more have been experienced by some receiving checks.
"The frustration level is extremely high," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who co-authored a letter of complaint from the Berkshire state legislative delegation that was sent to Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Joanne Goldstein and DUA Director Michelle Amante.
"There have been many problems caused by this conversion," said John Barrett III, director of the BerkshireWorks Career Center at 160 North St. "Some have raised havoc in the lives of people who've lost their jobs."
"Some people have gone eight or nine weeks without a check, some even longer, and those people are quite desperate," he added. "They come to us saying they can't pay their mortgage or rent, or they have medical issues. We've had to do some counseling with people who are emotionally distraught. We're seeing the human side of this, and most of them are friends and neighbors."
BerkshireWorks partners with the state Division of Career Services and with the Berkshire Training & Employment Program. It is chartered by the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board.
The state launched the new UI Online system July 1 under a $46 million state contract with Deloitte Consulting, the global business-services company, as part of an effort to deliver services more efficiently.
Under the new system, those seeking to file unemployment claims can use computers available at walk-in centers. Workers remain available at the centers to help users navigate the system. The system allows individuals to file individual claims, reopen existing claims, file their weekly benefit claim, check payment of claim status, sign up for direct deposit or tax withholding, and update personal information.
In a telephone interview, Goldstein described the launch of UI Online as "OK."
"Not to say we didn't have issues," she said, "but they were about what we expected, in terms of volume."
She emphasized that "We were likely to experience growing pains" replacing the previous fragmented, 30-year-old system.
"We tried to prepare people, sent out many letters, prepared the staff, did quite a bit of training, increased staff and expanded the hours of the call center," she said. "We anticipated a successful launch but that didn't mean it wouldn't have some bumps along the road, which we've been working to smooth out."
"We're doing a really good job of getting to where we want to be," Goldstein said. "We feel that in general, we've been able to resolve any issues that have come up, and we are seeing fewer. But we don't agree that this has been a system glitch or a system failure."
Barrett went public with his concerns about the new computerized system in late June.
"I anticipated a lot of problems," he said, "and I wish the state acknowledged that, addressed them quicker, and I wish they had listened to the staff in the career centers."
"We think the system can work," he said, "but in the meantime we've been making sure these people can live."
Pignatelli said problems with the new system are "far and away" the No. 1 concern among the constituents in the 20 South Berkshire and Hampden County towns that he represents.
"People have been on hold for an hour or an hour and a half and then get disconnected," he said.
Pignatelli, who said he has dealt with dozens of complaints over the past month, urged state officials to either abandon the new system, pull it back until it can be operated more efficiently, "or come out to the Berkshires and see what some of my constituents are up against."
Barrett also said several laid-off workers brought in letters from the state alleging that they owed several thousand dollars in supposedly overpaid benefits.
Goldstein said she could not comment on specific cases, but maintained that some published reports about such high-profile problems were not caused by UI Online but by "the interface between the individual and the system, between the staff and the system, or data-conversion issues."
Goldstein noted that the average 40-minute wait time at the DUA's call center that was reported in late August had been reduced to 30 minutes by this week.
She counseled patience for those who have encountered problems, "though that's hard when you're the individual who didn't get through and you have rent to pay and people to feed."
The state has authorized BerkshireWorks, which handles 170 new unemployment insurance claims weekly, to add one additional staffer to help provide walk-in service for claimants.
"We don't want you folks out there to think we've forgotten you," Goldstein said.
At BerkshireWorks, Barrett said at least half of the newly jobless have encountered difficulties. Others have come to the career center to help resolve problems with claims.
"The staff is literally stressed out," he said. "The state is starting to allow the career centers to do more to resolve some of the problems."
Art Butler, a longtime Pittsfield resident, runs the local office of the Foundation for Fair Contracting, which represents unions in the building trades. He said a member of Local 7 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers waited four months before receiving $10,500 in retroactive unemployment benefits.
Butler describes the new UI online system as "terrible" and as "bad as it can get for someone who has been laid off and there's no money coming in. It's unconscionable that this should happen."