Unemployed Need Help, Get Busy Signal

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For those who have recently found themselves laid off from their jobs, collecting unemployment benefits is becoming increasingly difficult in this state.

Try to get help on the state`s toll-free hotline, and you will likely get a busy signal.

It's keeping some jobless Pennsylvanians from getting benefits they desperately need.

Phillip Parker of New Columbia was laid off from his manufacturing job in September.

That's when he started calling the state`s toll free number to begin getting help.

He said every day, he'd call several times, always getting a busy signal.

"For three weeks it`s been busy, and I have not gotten through yet," said Parker who estimates he's called more than 100 times in October.

We took his concerns to Pennsylvania's Labor and Industry Secretary Julia Hearthway in Harrisburg and asked her to call her department`s own toll-free number.

She too, received a busy signal.

"Believe us, we want the system to run smoothly," said Secretary Hearthway. "We don`t want individuals out there, unable to get through."

Secretary Hearthway said when the Federal Government cut $30 million in state aid to the unemployment program, it forced a cut in call operators.

Inside the Labor and Industry building in Harrisburg, we found about a dozen workers handling unemployment claims.

Secretary Hearthway said more help is on the way. 

More than 100 additional temporary call center operators will be called into help this week.

However, Hearthway said that alone won`t solve the crisis.

"We need cooperation here," said Hearthway.

Hearthway said more people receiving unemployment assistance, need to apply, renew, and get questions answered online, and avoid using the toll-free line unless a phone call is the only option.

"We cannot afford to have the resources of an individual on the phone for everyone who has a question," said Hearthway.

In Union County, Phillip Parker said he needs to use the phone because he doesn`t have computer access, and a drive to a crowded career link center can be costly with gas near $4 a gallon.

When we left him Tuesday, he made one more call to the toll-free number, and predictably, he received a busy signal.

Secretary Hearthway said people who have to use the phone need to know this: It is easier to get through to the call center after 2:30 p.m. than it is in the morning or early afternoon. It is easier to get through towards the end of the week than the beginning, and it is easier to get through on a landline rather than a cell phone, though no one at labor and industry can explain why.

The bottom line: Those who need to get or renew unemployment benefits, should use a computer if they have one, or can use a friend's computer, or even go to their public library's computer. Otherwise she admits the busy signal problem could continue.