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Mass. jobless claim system criticized by users

Frustrated users describe glitches; but state says all is well

Joanne Goldstein leads the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE GLOBE/File

Joanne Goldstein leads the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

State officials insist a new $46 million online system for requesting unemployment benefits has been a success, despite frustration among users who struggled to make it work and could not reach anyone for help.

Officials at the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said Friday that the new system processed more than 117,000 weekly unemployment claims online as of mid-Friday and Secretary Joanne Goldstein called it “modern and integrated.”

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That was cold comfort to Leah Farriabough, 28, of Malden, one of several aggravated users at the state’s unemployment office on Staniford Street in Boston Friday.

Farriabough said she tried to make changes to her account online and could not even log on to the system. Her calls for help to a customer hot line were also unsuccessful, she said. So she ended up driving to the unemployment office, her young son in tow.

“You can’t call. You stay on hold for hours then it hangs up on you,” Farriabough said. “They tell you a day to call based on your Social Security number, but even then you can’t get through.”

Mark Earley said he recently landed a part-time job and wanted to change his level of benefits. But he said he had difficulty navigating the system and getting his phone calls answered.

“You can spend five days trying to call them and they will never answer because of high caller volume,” Earley said.

Goldstein defended the system that she said has worked for the vast majority of claimants since its launch July 1. But she said it would take time for some people to get used to the new system, acknowledging some frustration and “growing pains.”

“It has been a success,” Goldstein said. “We are mindful for some people it has been a challenge, and we are doing everything we can for those people.”

Yet there were glitches from the start. The day the system launched, job seekers complained that they were unable to access the website for several hours and got a busy signal if they called the assistance numbers. State officials said the difficulties were resolved within hours, although an error message was posted on the website all day.

The new system replaced a 30-year-old system state officials described as fragmented and outdated. State officials said Deloitte Consulting designed and implemented the new system, which was specifically customized for the Department of Unemployment Assistance.

The $46 million price tag also includes technology allowing employers to file quarterly wage and employment information and make payments electronically.

The state has hired 60 full-time call center workers to help people navigate the system, extended the call center’s hours, and mailed booklets and posted YouTube videos about how to make a claim, Goldstein said.

Suzanne L. Herold, an attorney who handles unemployment claims at the Boston firm of Davis & Davis said laid-off workers have flooded the state’s unemployment offices to file their claims since they were unable to get them processed online.

“It seems like the system is basically crippling their ability to apply,” Herold said. “Because the system is so bad and people need so much assistance to use it, the line is 30 people deep.”

Goldstein said she would “respectfully disagree” with that observation, noting that lines at various unemployment offices are “totally manageable or nonexistent.” The line at the Staniford Street office had six people on Friday afternoon.

Goldstein said the average wait time for callers is 35 to 40 minutes, not much different than the wait time prior to the system’s launch.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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