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One woman’s lengthy wait for unemployment aid

Karen Lucas waited nearly three months for her jobless benefits.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Karen Lucas waited nearly three months for her jobless benefits.

Two months after losing her job of 18 years and filing an unemployment claim, Karen Lucas had still not received benefits. Her savings depleted, she began to grow desperate, worrying how she would afford the insulin she needs daily to treat her diabetes.

The 44-year-old Watertown resident said she called the state Division of Unemployment Assistance week after week, sometimes waiting on hold for hours to speak with a representative. No one could give her any information about her claim, so she waited, taking her insulin in lower than prescribed doses to make it last longer.

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Finally, nearly three months after filing her claim, Lucas on Wednesday received her unemployment benefits of $377 a week on Wednesday in a lump sum of more than $4,000. But the experience left a mark.

“It was scary,” she said. “How am I supposed to eat, to pay my bills, to live?”

Lucas’s case highlights the challenges facing jobless workers trying to navigate the unemployment system. While it’s unclear whether Lucas’s long wait is related, those challenges have increased since July 1, when the state labor department launched a new computer system for managing unemployment claims.

The $46 million online benefits system created by New York consulting firm Deloitte was supposed to make filing unemployment claims easier, but has been riddled with problems and left hundreds of people with reduced benefits or none at all. Perhaps more aggravating for many claimants has been the inability to reach someone by phone who can answer questions or fix problems.

The state Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight will hold a public hearing on Oct. 28 due to continued concerns among legislators over the number of complaints about the system and the difficulties in getting assistance.

“I never asked the government for help. And when I finally need it, they put me through the wringer.’’

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State officials have defended the system, saying only a relatively small number of people have been affected by glitches. Lauren Jones, a spokeswoman for the state labor department, said she could not comment on the specifics of Lucas’s claim, citing confidentiality laws.

Jones said the office usually provides unemployment benefits within two weeks of an application, unless there issues with the claim, such as an employer disputing a claimant’s eligibility. Employers have 10 days to respond to a request for benefits, she said.

The state “takes every claim seriously and understands that waiting to receive benefits can have a direct and significant impact on a claimant’s life circumstances,” Jones said.

Fired from Home Depot in August after working for the company for nearly 18 years, Lucas applied for unemployment benefits the same week, she said, because she was terminated abruptly when the company said she mishandled scheduling, which she denied.

“It tore my heart out,” she said of losing her job.

Stephen Holmes, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Home Depot, said the company does not “publicly discuss the details of an individual’s termination.” He added that state officials ultimately decide whether an individual is eligible for benefits.

When a few weeks went by without benefits, Lucas called to see if there was a problem. Each week, after waiting on hold for long periods, she was told to call back the next week if her claim had not been processed, but was not given any further information.

The state designates one day a week for claimants to call about unemployment claims based on their Social Security numbers. Jones said claimants receive a guidebook when they file their claims, but that further communication with the state is depends on the nature of the case.

When two months went by without any benefits — or an explanation — Lucas grew increasingly scared and frustrated. Her health insurance was terminated the week after she left the company, so she borrowed $200 from a friend to buy insulin.

When that nearly ran out, she went to her doctor, who gave her free samples. She said she cut her daily dose to make it last longer.

Last week, with no word on her claim and no correspondence from the state, she called the governor’s office in tears and e-mailed the Globe looking for help. The Globe forwarded her e-mail to state labor department officials.

This week, she received unemployment benefits. Lucas said she when she originally filed her claim online, she asked for direct deposit to her checking account, but she’s too worn down to complain.

“I’ve always worked my whole life, I took care of my three kids, I never asked the government for help,” she said. “And when I finally need it, they put me through the wringer.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com.
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