January 8, 2009 at 8:12 am

Jobless claims overwhelm state

Mich. to hire workers, open seven offices to help unemployed get benefits.

People wait for service at an unemployment office in Detroit as the number of jobless Michiganians surpasses 400,000. (Wayne E. Smith / The Detroit News)

The state is hiring 90 temporary workers, forcing employees to work overtime, added a new computer server and opened seven problem-solving offices in a furious attempt to deal with the tens of thousands of laid-off Michigan workers who are desperately trying to get their unemployment checks.

State officials admit they've got their work cut out for them. They're missing possibly hundreds of thousands of calls each day from jobless Michiganians seeking unemployment benefits, because they can't keep up with the crush.

Only about 11,000 callers are getting through to unemployment claims processors each day via phone, while the vast majority of callers get no more than a recorded message informing them that "all circuits are busy now."

State officials suggest citizens exercise "persistence and patience" and keep dialing.

That's not what Phillip DiMambro wants to hear.

The 26-year-old Hamtramck resident was laid off Dec. 10 as a truck driver and has grown increasingly frustrated that he can't get help.

"I called every day. I tried to do it online and the system froze up," said DiMambro, who joined a steady flow Wednesday at the unemployment office in the state office building in Detroit's New Center.

He was waiting to talk to an appeals board about a problem with his jobless claim and in the meantime isn't getting benefits.

"I got a 5-month-old son to put diapers on. The rent is due and I'm already a month behind," he said shortly after meeting with a claims worker. "I hate having to come down here. I hate sitting on my hands."

Andre Sneed, who lost his job at Lear Corp., also went to the Detroit office after he tired of listening to the telephone recording.

"You just can't get through," he said. "You can't get through at all."

That's a familiar refrain in Michigan, which leads the nation with a 9.6 percent unemployment rate and has 103,000 more jobless residents than it did a year earlier.

More than 400,000 Michiganians are claiming unemployment benefits -- a number that grew by 110,000 in November alone, said Norm Isotalo, a spokesman for the state's Unemployment Insurance Agency.

The average benefit is about $295 a week for a maximum 26 weeks. The federal government granted two extensions -- one in July, another in November -- that gave laid-off workers in Michigan a maximum of 59 weeks of benefits, he said.

Michigan isn't the only state overwhelmed by unemployment claims.

With the national unemployment rate at a 15-year-high of 6.7 percent, claims offices are being swamped across the nation. In recent days, electronic unemployment filing systems have crashed in New York, North Carolina and Ohio.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm "is acutely aware of the problem and is taking a number of steps" to deal with it, said her spokeswoman, Liz Boyd.

The governor directed the hiring of 90 temporary new workers by month's end to help the 240 employees who are handling the mushrooming unemployment claims. The seven problem resolution offices have opened so people can cut through red tape to collect benefits.

Besides mandatory overtime, the state has suspended flexible work schedules for agency employees to make sure they are available during peak times, Boyd said.

"We're trying to be as responsive as possible, but the stark reality is that we have hundreds of thousands of people unemployed in this state and this is one unfortunate result of that unemployment rate," she said.

In Michigan, the situation is likely to worsen in the coming months. State fiscal experts are forecasting the state's unemployment rate will top 11 percent during both 2009 and 2010.

The problem in connecting to unemployment offices was exacerbated by decisions made earlier this decade, when Gov. John Engler closed more than 40 unemployment offices around the state and converted to a cheaper telephone/computer system, Isotalo said. Six of those offices have since reopened.

Isotalo said he has no way of knowing how many of the hundreds of thousands of daily phone calls that are attempted, but don't connect with the state, are from people who may be calling a dozen or more times trying to get through.

He said the state encourages people to file their claim online. He acknowledged that the electronic system was difficult to deal with Monday because of the heavy volume of people trying to use it after a holiday weekend. But he said the online system seemed to be performing normally on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dionne Scott, a 41-year-old Detroiter who lost her environmental services job at a hospital, showed up at the Detroit office on Wednesday to check her status after her phone calls went unanswered.

"We're already going through stress and then this happened," she said.

You can reach Charlie Cain at (517) 371-3660 or ccain@detnews.com">ccain@detnews.com.