Unemployment phone system jammed by volume of calls

Callers trying to apply for unemployment benefits can expect to spend a half hour on hold before they get to a real person.

Employment Security Department Director Myla Florence said Friday the average wait time earlier this week was 27 minutes and 27 seconds. And that's after a caller actually gets into the system.

It took eight attempts Thursday and Friday to get past the message saying the system was too busy to take the call.

"Thank you for calling the Employment Security telephone claim unit," says the recorded message. "We are presently experiencing a heavy volume of calls and cannot accept your call at this time. Thank you for your patience. Please try your call again."

At that point, the system hangs up on the caller.

Some individuals, including Pam Paul of Gardnerville, say they have called dozens of times without getting past that message. She said in a letter to the Appeal she called 35-40 times a day starting in late November.

On Friday, Paul said she spent three hours listening to a recording on Friday and she has still not talked to a person over the phone system.

She said on Dec. 28, she spent an hour and 40 minutes on the telephone before a new recording came on saying her call was being transferred.

"Ten seconds later it disconnected me," she said.

After a caller gets into the system, he or she is asked for basic information to set up an account including a Social Security number.

At that point, the caller is put on hold until a claims worker is available. While some say they were on hold upwards of three hours, Florence said the average wait last Wednesday -- the most recent day for which she had data -- was 27 minutes and 27 seconds.

She said the system received 3,595 calls Wednesday.

She blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for worsening the already flat economy. The drop in airline tourist business after the attacks caused more than 11,000 layoffs in the Las Vegas area, and Florence said ESD's average number of applications for benefits went from 550 a day to 1,300.

Gov. Kenny Guinn authorized 40 additional positions to answer the phones in late September, but Florence said the volume of calls is still causing unacceptable wait times for many.

But she said it's not the applications that are causing the problem.

"I'll tell you what's killing us: the information calls," she said. "We had 1,581 of those Wednesday."

Florence said reducing the number of information seekers would greatly speed up handling of those who are applying for benefits after losing their job.

"Apparently what happens is somebody files their claim, then they call back the next day to make sure their claim was filed," she said.

She said many of the callers are just trying to find out if they are eligible. She said the agency is advising people that, if they made $300 or more during the past week, they aren't eligible for an unemployment check until the following week. She said people should wait until vacation or severance pay is exhausted before filing.

In the meantime, she said they should visit their local Job Link office to look for employment opportunities. They can find that office on the state Employment Security Division Web site.

Also on that Web site is the Nevada Job Bank, which lists numerous jobs available in the state.

Florence said ESD is hoping to launch Internet filing later this month. In other states, she said that system has reduced telephone volume by about 20 percent.

Largely because of the drop in tourist business following the attacks, Nevada's unemployment rate hit a 7-year high in November -- 6.5 percent.

But Florence said there are already some signs the industry is stabilizing. Weekend occupancy rates on the Las Vegas Strip are up again although midweek volume is still off.

Western Nevada and the Reno area were much less hurt by the drop in airline tourist arrivals. Most of the tourists who visit Lake Tahoe, Reno and the Capital come by car or bus.

In addition, experts say December numbers may be better in part because many retail businesses hire temporary help to handle the Christmas shopping rush.


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