Rhode Island struggles with highest unemployment

In this Feb. 5, 2013 photo, John Gallagher, second from right, an unemployed part-time student from Providence, R.I., addresses a group on the difficulties of accessing unemployment benefits in Rhode Island during a meeting at the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, R.I. A month after losing his job as a bus driver, Gallagher has not been able to reach anyone at the state's unemployment call center. Also attending the meeting are, from left, Camilo Viveiros of Somerset, Mass., head organizer at the center; Maggi Rogers of Pawtucket, also an organizer; unemployed construction worker Ledimo Hernandez of Cranston, R.I.; and retiree Charles Casey of Providence. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Mark Simmons began dialing Rhode Island's unemployment call center at 8 a.m. on a recent Monday. He got a busy signal. He tried 67 more times before the automated system picked up and told him that because of heavy call volume, he should try back another time.

People applying for unemployment benefits in this state with the nation's highest jobless rate must wait on hold an average of 51 minutes. Not only that, but some of those interviewed by The Associated Press say that their benefits are often weeks late and that when they try to speak to a human about the problem, they're referred to a computer.

"This is about whether I can buy groceries or whether I'm going to be evicted," said Simmons, a 42-year-old Army veteran who has gotten by on part-time wages and unemployment since losing his job at a Providence bookstore in 2011. "I sit in my apartment, dialing the number again and again, when I'm supposed to be looking for jobs. It's like, what do I pay taxes for?"

While many states are well on the way to recovery 2½ years after the end of the Great Recession, financially ailing Rhode Island stands apart. And it inadvertently made things more difficult for its unemployed with an automated system that can't handle the demand, and a remarkably ill-timed decision to lay off scores of workers at the call center.

State officials acknowledge the problems and say they are rehiring staff and have upgraded the automated system. But the mess has illustrated how slowly and painfully recovery has come to Rhode Island.

With a population of just over 1 million, Rhode Island has 57,800 jobless people and is tied with Nevada for the highest unemployment in the nation, at 10.2 percent, as it seeks to reverse a long, slow decline in business that began well before the recession.

Once home to a robust manufacturing economy that produced jewelry, heavy machinery and other goods, Rhode Island has struggled for decades to attract the kind of jobs in health care and high tech that have helped its New England neighbors make the transition into the 21st century. Unemployment in Rhode Island peaked during the recent downturn at 11.9 percent, and the state is projecting a $69 million budget shortfall this year.

During the 2007-09 recession, the federal government gave states extra money to beef up unemployment-office staffing, but the dollars have dried up as the jobs picture has improved across the country.

Last summer, faced with a $3 million cut in federal aid, Rhode Island's labor department laid off 67 workers, including about one-third of the 150 people at the call center. Telephone wait times jumped to more than two hours, according to the union representing the laid-off workers.

Then Congress voted to extend emergency unemployment assistance, heaping more work on an already overstretched Rhode Island system that now handles 28,000 claims a week.

While the automated phone and online system takes claim information from people filing for benefits, it's up to state workers to process and approve the claims. When too many people call in at once, the phone system becomes overwhelmed.

Rhode Island has since secured federal money to refill 33 positions at the call center, and officials hope to move to a mostly Web-based system by the end of the year.

"We lost a third of our staff," said Charles Fogarty, director of the state Department of Labor and Training. "We are doing everything humanly possible. We understand it's not where it should be, and we're taking every measure possible to get it there."

Other states with outsized unemployment figures face similar struggles. Michigan laid off 400 unemployment workers last year, prompting complaints about benefit delays and long phone waiting times. Leaders there hope a new computer and telephone system scheduled to go into operation in several months will help.

Overall, 23 states planned to eliminate more than 1,200 full-time unemployment agency positions last fall, according to a survey by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. But on average, the cuts were far smaller proportionally than those in Rhode Island. Nevada also lost federal funding but did not lay off any call center workers.

In Rhode Island, Jonathan Jacobs was rehired by the department this year after being laid off. He said his overworked colleagues are "trying to bail out the ocean with little plastic pail."

"It's a flawed system," he said. "I'd love to take it back to the way it was when FDR set it up, but it's not that way."

Once, Rhode Island offered walk-in services for the unemployed, but that was eliminated a decade ago to make the system more efficient. That hasn't happened, according to unemployed bus driver John Gallagher.

The Providence man filed for unemployment after losing his job last month. The online system told him he would receive a response within eight business days. He is still waiting a month later. He tried to call into the center but got a recording.

"It said, 'We cannot process your call. Call again tomorrow,'" he said. "It's like an iron curtain. You can't call a real person. It's not how a democracy is supposed to work."