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Jobless benefits system defended

State Labor Department Secretary Joanne Goldstein sent a letter to legislators Thursday seeking to assure them that the new $46 million computer system for managing jobless claims is functioning with minimal problems — even as complaints from unemployed and recently employed workers continue to surface.

“Overall, the launch was successful and the system is working,’’ Goldstein wrote. Yet in a nod to the flood of calls and complaints into the Department of Unemployment Assistance — and to legislators’ offices — she said, “I recognize this success is irrelevant to the claimant who is without benefits or cannot reach a claims representative.’’

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Goldstein said the department has increased its staff, augmented training, and made “every effort to expeditiously and effectively resolve all claims.’’ She said in her letter that the unemployment division has doubled to nine the staff dedicated to its “constituent services unit,’’ essentially to take calls from people referred by legislators and other public officials trying to resolve problems.

And she added that lawmakers might soon be hearing new concerns unrelated to the system. Starting next week, the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration will reduce benefits for 35,000 claimants by 7.2 percent.

The letter, dated Sept. 26, followed weeks of technical glitches after the system was rolled out July 1. While the state has insisted that no more than 300 people at any given time have had complex and problematic cases, state officials have not said how many people have received erroneous bills for overpayments. One man wrongly received a bill from the state for about $45,000.

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A Dracut man who said he went back to work in May after a spell of unemployment received a letter this month alleging that he had collected jobless benefits after landing his job. The letter, reviewed by the Globe, said he had to prove he had not committed fraud. It also said a copy of the letter had been sent to his new employer, much to the embarrassment of the man, who asked not to be named because he did not want to jeopardize his new position.

Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Labor Secretary Joanne Goldstein

The Dracut man said that when he got through after a long wait on the phone line to the unemployment department, a representative apologized and said the letter had been sent in error.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Unemployment Assistance had no immediate comment on the letter but said the department “strives to safeguard the state’s [unemployment insurance] system against fraud and abuse and works towards maintaining the highest quality of program integrity.’’

Goldstein recently negotiated a 30-day extension to the period the system contractor, Deloitte Consulting, will fix problems at no additional cost to the state. The original 90-day warranty was to have run out Monday.

“As is to be expected with any program launch of this size, we have identified improvements that must be made in order for us to aptly serve every claimant,’’ Goldstein said in the letter. “Massachusetts now has a 120-day warranty and is holding Deloitte, our IT vendor, accountable for any necessary improvements.’’

The system for managing workers’ unemployment benefits was delivered two years late and pushed the computer modernization project $6 million over budget. Deloitte has said it is dedicated to getting the system working properly.

Deloitte has said there appear to be problems converting data from the older system. In addition, the new system is more aggressively looking to root out fraud, and in the process may be ensnaring people who have not broken the rules, according to state officials.

Beth Healy can be reached at Beth.Healy@globe.com. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at Megan.Woolhouse@globe.com.
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