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Mass. online benefits claim service falling short

State’s service fails for many of jobless

Melissa Moore, a lawyer who was laid off, was unsuccessful after attempts to file for benefits online and by phone.

George Rizer for the Globe

Melissa Moore, a lawyer who was laid off, was unsuccessful after attempts to file for benefits online and by phone.

More than six weeks after its launch, a new online system for filing state unemployment claims remains riddled with problems, leaving many jobless people unable to find technical assistance or get needed benefits.

In interviews and e-mails, frustrated claimants said they were unable to file claims through either the new online system or automated phone system linked to it. That frustration has been compounded by their inability to get through to help lines set up by the state. Many spoke of dialing and redialing in vain attempts to reach a human, spending long waits on hold only to be cut off and forced to reenter the queue.

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State officials acknowledge problems with the system, but insist those issues have affected a relatively small share of filers. Officials also acknowledge that callers are still spending an average of 40 minutes on hold.

Melissa Moore, a lawyer laid off in May from a Fall River fund-raising job, said that after several attempts to file for benefits online and by phone, she got so aggravated that she drove to the local unemployment office. When she was told no one would see her, she said, she broke down in tears.

“It’s very frustrating and it’s also very scary,” said Moore, 35, noting that she has bills to pay. “I haven’t had anything coming in for nine weeks.”

Joanne Goldstein, secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, said the system, overall, is “performing quite well,” processing an average of 115,000 claims a week since its launch on July 1.

“One person having a problem is one person too many,” Goldstein said. “We’re trying to address issues as quickly as we can.”

State labor officials said they have not tracked the number of complaints about the system, but the department has expanded hours at call centers and added 20 workers to handle the volume — on top of 150 regular full-time staff and 60 temporary workers, hired when the system was launched.

Another 80 employees of Deloitte, the New York accounting and consulting firm that built the system, are on site daily. Deloitte did not return phone calls requesting comment, but in an later e-mail said that questions about the service could be handled by state officials.

Dana Kern, an unemployed health care manager, is used to navigating complex bureaucratic systems. But, she said, she felt as if she was being held captive in a “penalization colony” as she encountered problems applying for benefits online. Getting through to a customer service representative, she said, was “impossible if you’re not really tenacious.”

At one point, the phone system provided callers entering the queue with an approximate wait time for reaching a customer service representative, Kern said. Now, the system says all representatives are busy — and hangs up.

Getting laid off “was distressing enough,” Kern said. “When they’re holding your check, well, it’s really dreadful to think about what the impact is on people’s stability. At least I have a retirement account I can raid.”

The online system for filing unemployment claims is the second phase of a $46 million technology upgrade launched under Goldstein’s predecessor, Suzanne Bump, now the state auditor. Phase I, completed in 2009, was designed to allow employers to make unemployment insurance payments online, but it, too, had a rocky start as employers experienced similar problems accessing and using the online system.

The state eventually waived fees and deferred interest on delayed unemployment insurance tax payments as a result of the glitches.

Bump, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

The second phase was supposed to be completed in 2011, but was delayed. When the system was launched on July 1, jobless workers complained they were unable to access the website for several hours and got a busy signal if they called the phone numbers the state provided for assistance. State officials said the difficulties were resolved within hours, although an error message was posted on the website all day.

Diane Badger, a Baptist pastor from Fall River, said she was laid off from her job in April as a hospice chaplain and filed for benefits in May, but has yet to receive a check. She said she tried filing online unsuccessfully, and when she calls for help, she frequently gets a message that “all lines are busy” and gets cut off.

In the meantime, she has been relying on a tiny stipend as a part-time pastor and the financial help of her adult daughters to get by. “I have been living on very little income,” Badger said. “Bills are piling up.”

Other claimants, unable to get help online or on the phone, have gone to state unemployment offices looking for answers. David Gadaire, executive director of CareerPoint, an unemployment and job training center in Holyoke, said the transition to the new system has been “very, very difficult.”

Although the problems have decreased, about a dozen people are still waiting to get unemployment checks after eight weeks, he said.

The office facilitates about 150 to 200 claims a week.

“We’re starting to get out of the panic stage, Gadaire said.

At the Staniford Street unemployment office in Boston, Tanisha Tarrant, 36, of Chelsea, expressed frustration that she could not access the system from her home computer. “Why would I come all the way down here if I could do it at home?” she said. “It’s a mess.”

Moore, the unemployed lawyer in Fall River, said she continues to try to resolve her benefits issues by phone, but she said she had to increase her cellphone plan’s allotted minutes to cover the time she spends on hold.

“If my bank or grocery store did this to me, I’d be panning them on Yelp and saying I’ll never do business with you again,” she said. “This system lacks human dignity.”

Globe correspondent Emily Overholt contributed to this report. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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