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Florida unemployment office still overwhelmed by calls, but some help arrives Monday

Jan Richard, a radio producer looking for work nearly a year-and-a-half, cheered this week's news that Florida was offering another round of extended benefits for the jobless.

Until he tried to talk to somebody about it.

Like many, Richard couldn't get through the toll-free number for the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation (AWI), which doles out unemployment benefits. Repeated attempts reaped a recurring message that all lines were busy; try back later.

"They come out with all these wonderful programs, and there is not a human being to talk to," said Richard, 55, who lives in Seminole. "If the state had to operate like a for-profit business, they'd be out of business in no time flat."

The logjam of calls to the state's unemployment office is nothing new in this 18-month-old economic downturn. With state unemployment just under 10 percent, AWI has endured several rounds of adding hundreds of call center employees and expanding service hours.

The state promises that the communications crisis is being fixed, starting next week.

In April, AWI approved a contract with Faneuil Inc. to manage an overflow call center in Orlando that eventually will be able to handle up to 10,000 calls a day.

The first 25 to 30 call center employees begin Monday. They'll be dedicated exclusively to handle questions about the extended benefits program made possible by Florida's acceptance of $418 million in federal stimulus money. Faneuil is supposed to bring in the rest of its workers in August.

With 1,000 workers already handling incoming calls, will another 25 make a dent in the problem? AWI spokesman Robby Cunningham thinks so, given they'll be dedicated to extended benefits issues.

The state could have waited to launch the new benefits plan until it added more call center workers, but officials said they wanted to make the program available online as soon as it was approved by Gov. Charlie Crist.

"The biggest thing is to make sure we can get the benefits into people's hands as quickly as possible," Cunningham said.

Though news of the extended benefits surely created a surge in calls, the overloaded system problem was already ingrained.

Harold Grigsby, an unemployed carpet installer in Port Richey, says he's repeatedly gotten the dreaded call-back-later message nearly every day for a month, ever since he found out he was denied unemployment benefits.

It's exasperating, he says, at a time so many people are available to staff unemployment call centers. "You can hire me to talk to people, and I'll tell them what to do," he said.

AWI has repeatedly said it has no way of knowing how many callers don't get through to a live agent. For those able to bypass the canned message, the peak wait time is about 30 minutes.

Even if the pace of new unemployment claims eases up — as it did last month — the record number of long-term unemployed is contributing heavily to clogged lines. A half-million Floridians receive weekly unemployment checks, and under state law they must call in every two weeks to reaffirm their jobless status. They get higher priority in the queue than others.

The state urges people to use its Web site (www.floridajobs.org) both for filing claims and finding answers to their queries.

That's little help to those without a computer, don't have easy access to a library or aren't comfortable navigating the Web site.

James Pirie of St. Petersburg, who has no computer and limited mobility following knee surgery, fits in that category. All he's looking for are some answers, Pirie said, but he hasn't been able to breach the telephone firewall no matter what time of day he calls.

Then there are those who take the agency's advice of going online and are still frustrated.

When Richard, the local radio producer, entered his Social Security number on the Web site as directed, a pop-up window told him he was not eligible for extended benefits. No explanation given. That triggered his unsuccessful efforts to reach the agency by phone.

"If I'm not eligible, okay. But tell me why," Richard said. "I'm swinging into the wind here trying to find out why I can't get an answer."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.

>>Fast facts

How to do it

The Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation encourages people to file claims and seek answers on their Web site (www.floridajobs.org). A claim may also be filed by telephone by calling toll free 1-800-204-2418. Choose the language and then option 2.

Florida unemployment office still overwhelmed by calls, but some help arrives Monday 06/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 11:20pm]

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