I-Team: Unemployment woes, can the system be fixed?

Eight people from all walks of life.  They’re out of work and angry enough to come to a television station and share their stories and their problems withRhode Island’s unemployment office. 

Stephanie Valdez is a single mom to two little boys.  “Christmas, they got one present each.  That hurt.  That hurt as a Mom, that I couldn’t afford their presents,” saidValdezas she fought back tears. 

While their stories are different, the complaints are the same: busy phone lines, poor customer service, and a huge delay in getting unemployment check.  For some it’s taken months.  “I’ve been putting in since I was a teenager.  This is my money.  I’ve only been on unemployment maybe 3 times in my life,” said Karen Ingraham. 

The NBC 10 I-Team went right to the top for answers. Katie Davis and Parker Gavigan sat down with Charles Fogarty, Director of the state’s Labor and Training department.  “There really is no reason somebody shouldn’t have gotten an answer in months.  If it’s a matter of a couple of weeks – that’s still not satisfactory if that’s the situation.  We’re dealing with it, but certainly not months and if there’s a problem I want to know about it,” said Fogarty.  The I-Team hand delivered the Director dozens of emails from NBC 10 viewers.

They’re your frustrations.  Your pleas for help.  “We understand the tremendous frustration a lot of people are having in terms of dealing with unemployment.  We deal with it every day thru the calls.  We know it’s tough to get through.  We know it’s caused inconvenience,” added Fogarty. 

Fogarty says federal law doesn’t allow him to talk about individual cases, but he told the I-team he’d look into the emails.  As for the problems facing DLT, the Director is pretty candid, saying the system isn’t what it should be.  The economy hit them too, according to Fogarty.  A third of the unemployment insurance division was laid off in July after a lack of federal funding.  “That had a phenomenal impact, in a negative way, on customer service.  Up to that point, we were still keeping our head above water, but just barely,” said the director. 

In December, there was more insult to injury for the agency.  A technological glitch leaked sensitive information over the DLT’s phone system. A woman inPawtucket, interviewed by NBC 10 in January, heard an automated operator repeat someone else’s social security number.  “Basically it sounded like it was somebody else’s phone call that I was hearing.  Except I couldn’t hear the other person talk or they couldn’t talk to me,” said the woman who wanted to remain anonymous.

The glitch was traced to a computer vendor making upgrades.  “If you’re going to replace equipment or put soft patches in, we’ve got to know in advance.  That didn’t happen that time and we’ve made sure that won’t happen in the future,” added Fogarty. 

The future of the unemployment office is really the question the I-Team was looking to answer. Federal grant money has allowed DLT to temporarily re-hire 33 of 50 laid off workers; a move Fogarty says will help with call center traffic. 

Other grants are improving the phone system and computer programs, linking RI toMississippi, a state leader in unemployment insurance. “Is the state doing all it can to help you with staff or any technological needs?” asked I-Team reporter Parker Gavigan. “Yes, the Governor in particular. 

The one thing he always asks me, you know this department handles many other things besides unemployment, but the one thing he constantly talks about; how are we doing in the call center; are you getting everything you need?”, said Fogarty. 

Gov. Chafee maybe doing what he can behind the scenes, but his office passed on being a part of this story.  A story about eight people who took the time to come to NBC 10 and share what it’s been like without a job.

“Whether it’s the Governor, I don’t know.  We called him.  Obviously that didn’t get us anywhere.  But there’s got to be somebody that needs to fix the system,” said Catherine Voelker. 

So if not the phone, where do you go for help?  DLT is pushing the contact page on their website, where you can file a claim, or get a confirmation and pin number on record.