PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire County residents seeking unemployment compensation will be required to file their claims electronically beginning next month as part of a state effort to deliver services more efficiently.
The state Department of Unemployment Assistance, which currently accepts phone and paper transactions in walk-in centers, will shift to a Web-based format in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Under the new system, job seekers will no longer be able to personally file their unemployment claims with staff members at the BerkshireWorks Career Centers in Pittsfield and North Adams, said center Director John Barrett III.
"Everything will have to be done through computers," he said.
Although walk-in filing will be discontinued, Barrett said local filers can still use the computers at each center to file their claims.
"We basically have about seven computers that they can use," he said. "A staff person can’t help them fill out the claim, but they can help them navigate the system."
In preparation for the transition to the new program, UI Online, the department plans to shut down its computer system on Wednesday, Barrett said. After that, people who go to BerkshireWorks to file paper claims that are then entered into a computer will be unable to do so.
"Monday and Tuesday are the last days for filing claims," Barrett said.
The web-based system is the second phase of the DUA’s effort to upgrade its IT infrastructure. The first phase occurred in 2009 when the department launched a web-based system specifically designed for employers to file their quarterly wage and employment information, and electronically pay their taxes.
Lauren Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said the current system for filing unemployment claims is inefficient.
"It was first established back in 1984 when computers were just coming out, and cellphones didn’t exist," Jones said. "Obviously, we’re more in a modern age and it gives us the opportunity to deliver services in a more efficient and modern way."
The new system will allow individuals to perform more transactions on their own without the assistance of DUA staff, according to the department. Specifically, the new system will allow unemployed workers to file initial 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 quickly and easily.
Service hours also have been expanded. The online system will be available to both employers and job seekers between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m., a significant increase over the DUA’s regular business hours that run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Claimants without either computer or Internet access, or for whom English is not their primary language, can call their regular benefits number for assistance. Information about filing online can also be found at www.mass.gov/dua.
Although the DUA has hired and trained additional staff across the state to assist job-seekers with the transition, Barrett believes adapting to the new method will take time.
As of April, 4,604 Berkshire residents were collecting unemployment benefits, according to the state.
"We don’t have any idea," Barrett said, when asked how many people filing unemployment claims at the county’s two career centers don’t have access to computers, "but we have a lot of older people and seasonal employees who come in and file claims. Next week we’re going to be busy with (school) bus drivers, and lot of them don’t have a computer.
"The transition period over the next six months is going to be very difficult," he added. "We’re hopeful it will go smoothly, but it’s a big change."