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Lag in call center training adds to NC unemployment agency woes

Posted May 13, 2020 4:48 p.m. EDT
Updated May 13, 2020 8:49 p.m. EDT

— Some North Carolinians have filed twice for unemployment as they try to navigate an often complex world of state and federal benefit programs and a help center overwhelmed by calls.

Others have waited hours for help, only to be told they need to speak with someone else.

Still others have run into North Carolina's 12-week cap on benefits, and they'll need to wait for a new program to get up and running to turn the spigot back on.

Barry Miller said he has called the Division of Employment Security office so many times that he has memorized the phone number and knows the recording he will get by heart.

"All of our associates are busy now. Our queue is full," Miller said the recording goes. "Then they go through a system that hangs you up."

Even getting someone on the phone doesn't help, said Miller, who filed his unemployment claim a while back and is still waiting for his benefits.

"You talk to people – you finally get a live person – and it is no help," he said. "This is 2020. There has got to be a better way."

Part of the problem has to do with the way the way state and federal programs interact. Congress set up the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for people who are self-employed or independent contractors, who typically aren't eligible for unemployment because their employers don't pay into the system for them.

But to qualify for the PUA program, people have to show ineligibility for state assistance first. Since April 24, people have been able to apply for both programs at the same time and get the eligibility check, the state Division of Employment Security said Wednesday.

Prior to that, they essentially filed in vain.

This is one of the big reasons that North Carolina has seen 1.15 million claims since March 15, but those claims represent only 870,000 actual people. Even the smaller number represents 17 percent of the state's workforce.

The explosion in claims over the last two months is unheard of. Last year, the state averaged some 3,200 new jobless claims a week. Now, it often gets more than 20,000 a day.

New unemployment claims in NC

On March 18, the N.C. Division of Employment Security began sporadically releasing details on the number of cumulative unemployment claims filed since March 16, most of them triggered by layoffs related to the novel coronavirus. See how those numbers compare to cumulative new claims filed during a similar time period in 2019 and the 2009 recession, acccording to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Source: N.C. DES, U.S. Department of Labor
Graphic: Tyler Dukes, WRAL

The state has said it's adding some 2,100 people to what was once a staff of about 500. But there's a gulf in training, which is why some people are told they need to speak to a different agent, DES spokeswoman Kerry McComber said.

"We are building up the skill sets of the newer call agents by providing expedited training," McComber said in an email.

There's also a dedicated phone line for the federal PUA claims for self-employed workers and independent contractors.

"Sometimes people call that line, but they have a questions that’s unrelated to PUA and need to seek assistance through the regular Customer Call Center line," McComber said.

"As you can imagine, there is a lot of training that has to go on for someone to be able to answer a call," Gov. Roy Cooper said during a Tuesday briefing. "But they are putting more and more people on it.”

Part of that training involves handling sensitive information.

Cooper focused on the people the system has helped during the briefing, but he also acknowledged the need to do better.

"They know at that department that they need to do more and that they need to move faster," he said, "and I am pushing them to move faster."

State officials ask that people file online whenever possible, and most claims have come that way. Some issues can be resolved only with more direct contact, though. The state has added a chat function to the DES website to help relieve call volume.

Emily Craven, who is out of work and using her tax return to get by said she tried the chat feature.

"They said I did everything right, but I just have to wait," Craven said.

Another federal stimulus program, called Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, will eventually give North Carolinians who exhaust their regular state benefits an extension. It's not up and running yet, though, and DES hasn't announced a timetable other than to say it's working on it.

The duration of North Carolina's benefits increases based on the state's unemployment rate, and it can go as high as 20 weeks. But that's only recalculated twice a year, and isn't due for a recalculation until July 1. The maximum now is 12 weeks, so anyone who was unemployed in mid-February is starting to run out.

The federal PEUC program, once it's up and running in North Carolina, will extend benefits by another 13 weeks. Those with a gap will get retroactive payments, the state has said.

DES lays out details of the federal programs, and how they dovetail with state benefits, online.

Since mid-March, the state has paid out about $1.8 billion in unemployment benefits to about 517,000 people. Much of the money came from the federal stimulus programs, which tack $600 onto people's weekly checks.

Otherwise, benefits in North Carolina are roughly half a person's salary, with a maximum of $350 a week.

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