It is tough enough being unemployed during the holidays, but the Unemployment Compensation call center isn't easing the stress for out-of-work Pennsylvanians.
Call the number, and you'll get a busy signal. Trust us, you will. And laid-off workers like Deborah Humes of Steelton say it's a kick while they're down.
"There's nothing you can do but sit there on the phone," Hume said. "You can start at 7 o'clock in the morning, it might be 11 o'clock before you get through. If you get through at all."
The call center is run by the state Department of Labor and Industry. Julia Hearthway is the Secretary. "We have all hands on deck," Hearthway said.
Hearthway admitted the system is swamped by call volume and provides shocking numbers.
In September 2011, there were 900,000 phone calls to unemployment.
One year later, in September 2012, the number jumped to 8 million calls.
In October 2012, 11.1 million, and in November 2012, a whopping 15.5 million calls, despite the four-day Thanksgiving weekend when the center was closed.
I asked if she has enough staff to handle all those calls. "We've never had staffing to handle 15 and a half million calls. There isn't enough tax dollars to staff a call center to handle 15 and a half million calls."
A team in L & I's Harrisburg command center is searching for a solution. Hearthway said law enforcement has been notified and is actually investigating possible sabotage. Hearthway thinks, however, a more likely scenario is claimants hitting the redial button on their phones or worse, using apps that perpetually redial.
One person could make 900 calls in an hour that way.
"Those apps didn't exist a few years ago," Hearthway said. "So if there's a group of individuals downloading those apps and redialing that would choke the system."
Until the problem is solved, Hearthway says go online first, use a special fax number (717 525-5160) second. If you must call, Thursdays and Fridays are less busy than Mondays.
Hearthway admitted that in the last year she's reduced call center staff, call center hours and closed the Philadelphia call center altogether. She blamed the cuts on a $30 million dollar federal budget cut.
"Thirty million dollars from the federal government is no small haircut. So cutting those hours and staff was a way to save some money without hurting the system."
Of course, the system and the unemployed are hurting. Shirley Ortiz of Middletown tried repeatedly to have her case examined, to no avail. "It's frustrating because I feel like I'm dealing with no one. There's nobody there who will talk to me, write me a letter, anything. Any kind of response would be nice."
Humes was more direct. "Their customer service sucks, to be honest with you."
"I hate hearing stories like that," Hearthway said. "I realize this is an extremely difficult time in someone's life to lose their job and I realize how frustrating it is to reach out and not be able to get the help you need. Like any organization there are a few, and there's times when people are tired, they take a lot of angry calls all day long, but this is something we look for, monitor, and watch."
Hearthway asked for patience while the problem is investigated, and if you're continually hitting the redial she says please hold the phone.