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Jobless aid still eluding some in Mass.

Latest computer problem adds to benefit seekers’ pain

Heidi Thompson-Totman has not been receiving her unemployment benefits because of a defect in the state’s computer system. Now, she says, “We are going downhill fast.”

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Heidi Thompson-Totman has not been receiving her unemployment benefits because of a defect in the state’s computer system. Now, she says, “We are going downhill fast.”

Devastated by the layoff last year from her job of 15 years, Heidi Thompson-Totman found new hope when she was approved for a federally funded program that would provide her with up to about a year of unemployment benefits while she retrained to work as a graphic designer.

Borrowing $2,000 to cover tuition and enrolling at North Shore Community College last fall, Thompson-Totman looked forward to completing her associate’s degree and getting back to work — until her weekly benefit of about $300 stopped without explanation two months ago. Now, she and her husband, barely getting by, are planning to sell their Boxford home so they can pay college tuition for their two children.

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“We are going downhill fast,” said Thompson-Totman, 47. “We can’t make our bills.”

Thompson-Totman is among many jobless Massachusetts residents enrolled in or approved for retraining programs who had benefits mistakenly cut off or delayed because of another defect in the new $46 million computer system for managing unemployment claims. Since its rollout in July, the system has caused widespread problems that not only prevented hundreds of unemployed workers from collecting benefits during any given week, but also led to many receiving erroneous bills for past overpayments of jobless benefits.

In one notable case last year, a Lawrence man received a bill saying he owed the state more than $45,000.

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Deloitte Consulting, the New York firm that built the system, said at a state Senate hearing last week that it is committed to fixing all the problems and leaving the state with an effective system for managing unemployment claims.

Deloitte officials, however, acknowledged that the system had many defects, and the firm was in the process of fixing 130 of them one day last week.

Delottie did not respond to a request for comment.

This particular defect affected jobless workers who qualify for a state-funded program known as Section 30, which waives requirements that they look for jobs while they are enrolled in approved retraining programs. It also extends unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks after state benefits run out while they complete retraining programs.

In Massachusetts, unemployed workers can collect state benefits of up to 30 weeks.

Robert Oftring, legislative director for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said this problem affected 150 out of the 8,000 enrolled in the program. He said Monday that the Section 30 problem had been “triaged and fixed.”

But Thompson-Totman said that if her problem has been resolved, no one told her — or sent a check.

Samantha Lacoste, who is pursuing a degree in business administration at Holyoke Community College under the Section 30 program, said she is still waiting for her weekly benefits of $265 a week, which were cut off nearly two months ago.

Tina Parent of Westfield shows an erroneous bill she got from the state Department of Unemployment Assistance.

MATTHEW CAVANAUGH FOR THE GLOBE

Tina Parent of Westfield shows an erroneous bill she got from the state Department of Unemployment Assistance.

Lacoste, 26, of Holyoke, said she has fallen behind on rent, car insurance, and utility payments and has borrowed money from family as she tries to support herself and her 1-year-old daughter, Natalie.

“It’s my only source of income,” Lacoste said of the unemployment benefits. “It’s my lifeline.”

Lacoste was laid off as a technical support staffer at a Springfield research center last year, a job she had held since she was 16. She said she has called the state Labor Department weekly, with the hope that her claim would be resolved. And like Thompson-Totman, each time she calls, she waits on hold for more than an hour, speaks to various agency representatives, and still does not understand why the problem has not been fixed.

“It’s a very, very tough situation,” she said. “They tell me it’s being worked on, but I’m not seeing anything being done about my situation.”

The timing of the problems with the Section 30 program coincides with the end of federal emergency benefits, which expired at the end of last year when Congress failed to reauthorize them. Thousands of long-term unemployed people in Massachusetts lost those federal benefits, and it appears that those in the Section 30 program may have been mistakenly included among them.

Tina Parent, 52, of Westfield, is another in the Section 30 program whose benefits suddenly stopped at the end of last year. Adding to her anxiety, she received two bills in December from the Labor Department, saying she owed the state $4,400 because of past overpayments — although that mistake was apparently corrected recently.

Laid off from her job in records management, she collected $250 a week while taking classes at Holyoke Community College to become an office administrator. She tried to resolve the problems by contacting the state’s call center dozens of times, but often waited so long on hold that her cellphone ran out of battery power.

When she did get through, she said, she was typically shifted from one customer service representative to another, none of whom could offer an explanation or a fix. She eventually called state legislators and the Globe in frustration.

Not long after a reporter gave her name to state labor officials, Parent said, she received a back payment of $1,200, but no explanation from the state about what had happened.

“It’s a nightmare,” Parent said. “A couple weeks ago, I didn’t know what I was going to do; we had no oil. If I didn’t have my boyfriend, I’d be homeless.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, an earlier version of this story misidentified the source of funding for the Section 30 unemployment benefits program.

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