Dead End Jobless

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When Francis Martinez called the number at 8:30 in the morning, she heard the familiar, peremptory message: “All circuits are busy now. Please try your call again later.” She tried two hours later; busy again. She tried at 1 p.m., at 4, at 10, and at midnight, she says, laughing ruefully. “I gave up.”

It’s a good thing Martinez is unemployed.

Amid the surge of New Yorkers who’ve lost their jobs since last September, applying for unemployment insurance can be a full-time job. Just before Easter, the automated voice mail system told Martinez her unemployment benefits were exhausted, and she would have to reapply if she wanted to get a 13-week extension. So she called every hour or so. When that didn’t work, she tried to pick times when she thought the lines might be free, with the same result. All she needed was the 888 number for extensions, and she couldn’t get it. When she eventually did manage to get through, the automated voice mail system simply told her no agents were available, and clicked off. After days of this, “I started, like, a little panicking,” she recalls. “I tell you, I freaked, because I have a family to feed.”

In the scheme of things, Martinez is extremely fortunate: The job she lost was as a janitor in the top floors of the World Trade Center. She started calling her former coworkers, and eventually a colleague gave her a number that picked up-Disaster Unemployment Insurance, for which she was eligible. “It was all word of mouth!” she exclaims. “It’s so hard to get through. The ones who don’t speak English, they just think it’s their last check.”

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When the New York State Department of Labor switched to an exclusively phone-based system for filing unemployment claims two years ago, it was supposed to make everybody’s life a little easier. For the most part, it probably has. Unemployed people don’t have to stand in line for hours anymore, waiting for a two-minute interview to find out why their checks stopped coming or prove that they were out looking for a job.

But for people with no phone, a hearing impairment, a language barrier, or particularly complicated claims, it has been a major obstacle. At first, the phone service was in English and Spanish only; it took a class-action lawsuit to force the labor department to keep two offices open for Chinese-speaking applicants. This February, Long Island Assemblymember Patricia Eddington introduced a bill to exempt claimants with disabilities from the phone-only requirement after DOL staff gave a deaf constituent a series of contradictory instructions.

The labor department has been trying to set things right. Right after 9/11, it temporarily reopened all the employment centers to in-person claims, recognizing that there would be a flood of people needing special help. In March, it contracted with a translation service to provide on-phone language services for people who don’t speak English, Spanish or Chinese. But callers still must enter through the automated English system; they need a translator just to get to the translator.

Now, in the biggest wave of unemployment in two decades-in February, nearly 4,000 New Yorkers were losing their jobs every day-getting insurance benefits is getting to be a problem even for native English speakers like Martinez. Increasing anecdotal evidence shows that many of them are having the same experience she had: busy signals, automated messages that the system is down, and days of not being able to file a claim or talk to a live human being. An internal email obtained by City Limits indicates that the system has had repeated failures on its busiest days; on April 29, it operated at 25 percent of capacity.

There was a time when people with complicated claims-or even simple questions like “Where’s my check?”-could simply call or visit one of the 15 state Department of Labor offices and talk to the staff there. But when the phone system became mandatory in December 2000, those offices either shut down or converted into “employment centers,” whose sole purpose was to help people find jobs.

Ever since this conversion-which the federal Department of Labor encouraged by offering special grants in 1996 and 1997 to states that shifted to automated systems-the state labor department has been systematically shutting off contact between its services and the unemployed public. Now, the only way unemployed people can talk to a person is by going through a computerized voice mail system, answering the right questions the right way. It also takes a lot of luck: If the waiting time exceeds 10 minutes, the system simply kicks them off. That is what happened to Martinez.

Eventually, successful callers connect to a telephone claims representative. Some of those reps are civil service employees who used to work in the unemployment offices, and know the insurance system’s complicated, constantly changing rules; others are hourly workers hired to staff the phones.

The new employment centers are listed on the labor department’s web site as places to call for “questions about how to file an unemployment claim.” But staff is instructed to simply give callers the main 888 number for the automated system-and explicitly forbidden from helping people with their unemployment claims. “They told us that if we got caught, we could be reported to the Inspector General’s office,” says Elizabeth Pearsall, president of the union for what are now called “employment security clerks,” charged with helping people search for jobs.

It would be “inappropriate” for staff to help individual claimaints, responds Department of Labor spokesperson Rob Wilpop, because they’re not trained to do so. “The job centers are there to help people get jobs,” says Wilpop. “We don’t want them to be commenting on individual unemployment situations.”

Pearsall, who is also on the statewide labor-management committee for the Department of Labor, objected when the orders came down. “Their answer to me was, ‘We are only mandated to offer employment services,'” she recalls. And she asks in response, “What is our mission here? We are not helping the people that we are supposed to be helping.” Making sure people got benefits they were legally entitled to “was always my idea that that’s what my job is, and we don’t do that anymore.” The office staff can’t even really answer general questions from applicants, says Pearsall, because the DOL doesn’t keep them up to date on its myriad rule and procedural changes.

“It’s almost as if they’re trying to discourage people,” she says. “I understand there’s a 30 percent walkaway rate for insurance claims: You tell them no once, and they walk away. “I think we have a high walkaway rate.”

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Nobody knows what the walkaway rate is for sure. New York, like most states, does not keep track of people who are eligible for unemployment insurance but fail, for whatever reason, to file for it.

It does, however, keep very close tabs on how many people leave the unemployment rolls. That’s because state officials are working hard to get them off. In 1999, the state labor department shifted $39 million of its budget to a fund dedicated to getting people to depart the rolls as quickly as possible, whether because they found jobs, refused work or failed to claim benefits. One 2001 report from the agency boasted that 112,364 claimants left the rolls before their six months of unemployment benefits expired, shaving 1.6 weeks off the average claims period (the agency had been aiming to cut just one week).

The goal, as stated in the report, was to keep the state’s Unemployment Insurance trust fund solvent by getting people to use it less, instead of by raising payroll taxes-thus making it possible for New York to charge some of the lowest unemployment payroll taxes in the country. New York State is currently paying out more in unemployment benefits than it is taking in from employer payments; in February, it bottomed out, and New York State had to borrow about $100 million. But instead of forcing the fund to pay for itself, Governor Pataki has consistently refused to raise the amount of employee income that’s taxable by the insurance fund; it now stands at $8,500. Earlier this year, the state Assembly passed a bill introduced by Assemblymember Catherine Nolan that would raise New York’s taxable wage base to $23,000-the level of New Jersey’s. It’s still waiting for a state Senate sponsor.

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New York is not the first state to have problems with its new phone-based unemployment systems. Pennsylvanians had widespread difficulties retrieving their payments. Colorado concluded that it would have to leave some offices open to avoid causing “undue hardship.” Massachusetts legislators eventually passed a law forcing the state labor department to keep 15 offices open. And Washington now must survey the state population each year, determine what languages its residents most commonly use, and offer them as options at the beginning of its voice mail system.

Several insights emerged from these experiences. One was that a mixed office-and-phone system was the best way to make sure eligible people get their benefits. Another lesson, one with implications for New York’s stressed-out trust fund, is that it does not save money. Just as private businesses discovered that automated phone systems came with hidden personnel costs-for instance, more customer service needed, not less-states found that their overall costs went up. “It doesn’t save money,” says Wayne Vroman, a researcher for the Urban Institute who has conducted numerous studies on unemployment recipiency rates. “You basically move into a very high-tech environment-it involves fewer people, but they’re paid more. So there’s not much of a net savings in cost.”

But there was another lesson, offering some hope for New York. Properly applied, the switch to phones can elevate the proportion of people receiving unemployment insurance benefits-by 10 to 30 percent in a 1998 report of three systems by the Mathematica Policy Institute.

Whether the technology deters certain people with impaired access to the phone system, nobody yet knows. In part, that’s because studying people who are eligible for unemployment but do not file for it is very hard to do. “You don’t have to call up some number and report that you’ve been unemployed,” explains New York State labor department market analyst James Brown. “We have no way of knowing that until they file.”

In fact, there is one way to study nonfilers: by including relevant questions in the Current Population Survey, the labor market data that the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles from states every month to report unemployment levels. The federal Department of Labor published one study of nonfilers in 1999, based on CPS data from 1993. (It concluded that most nonfilers mistakenly think they’re not eligible.) New York State has never conducted such a study.

Now, an organizing group, the New York Unemployment Project, is setting out to do just that. Working with an economist from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, organizers will be passing out a survey for unemployed people in churches, food pantries, community groups, check-cashing places, 99-cent stores, headhunters and even web-based job-finding services.

By looking at the total population of unemployed-as opposed to just those who are on unemployment-they hope to find out who’s falling through the cracks, and how they’re getting by. “We shouldn’t be waiting for the federal government,” says organizer Jonathan Rosen. “The state should be working with CDCs, working with immigrant groups, trying to find out who’s not getting served. Right now, the jobless and those with limited access are paying the price.”

Sidebar: Advice? You’re Fired.

The public has the legal power to monitor, and even influence, how the state’s unemployment system works. Under state law, the state Department of Labor must have an Advisory Council on Employment and Unemployment Insurance, an independent body with full investigatory powers and access to all sources of information.

There’s just one problem: The Pataki administration eliminated the council in 1996. “Our staff was removed, our offices were taken away, and it became really obvious that we were not really wanted, to put it mildly,” says Walter Mankoff, one of the former co-chairs. Composed of five people appointed by the governor-two representatives for employers, two for employees, and one for the general public, who is supposed to serve as chair-the Council is charged with monitoring all aspects of the system and issuing reports every year.

The council was never politically popular. When then-Governor Mario Cuomo failed to appoint a public representative in 1994, the body kept going, co-chaired by reps from each side. One of its recommendations that year was to raise the “taxable wage base”-the amount of payroll the state taxes-from $8,000 to $12,000. Big businesses don’t like such raises, but they’re necessary for keeping the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund solvent.

To stay alive, says Mankoff, “the council would have had to effectively sue the labor department-and there was no way that would ever happen. As a practical matter, the council does not function without the cooperation of the labor department. I’m not out there marching with picket signs about it, but I think it’s unfortunate.” -AC