Making the call
• Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be the busiest days for the call center. Kansas Department of Labor, which oversees the program, recommends trying to call later in the week.
• Most beneficiaries can file online. The Web address is www.uibenefits.dol.ks.gov. The site also has answers to the most frequently asked questions.
• Callers can use the Department of Labor’s main line, (785) 296-5000. While you won’t get your question answered at that number, they will be able to take a message, pass it along to the call center and have someone call you back.
Last summer when Beth Meyers needed to straighten out a mix-up with her unemployment benefit claims, she dialed up the state’s unemployment call center looking for help.
She got put on hold instead.
After waiting nearly 30 minutes, she hung up and tried again. And again. And again.
“If you have to actually talk to a human being, well, your life span isn’t that long,” Meyers joked.
Meyers, who uses the voice automated system weekly to file her benefit claims, never had a problem with the call center before. She eventually solved the issue by walking into the Lawrence Workforce Center and asking for help.
As unemployment rises, so do frustrations with accessing the state’s unemployment phone lines, said Rodney Carr, who is a workforce development representative at the local center.
He sees clients who wait more than an hour to talk to someone on the phone. And those are the lucky ones. Many — after entering basic information on the voice activated system — get booted off because the system just can’t handle so many callers on hold.
“It is frustrating, it is extremely frustrating what they are going through at this point,” Carr said.
A lot of callers — such as Meyers — look to the workforce center for guidance. But the center is under a different department and has a specific mission to assist its clients in finding jobs, so it can’t provide much help on unemployment issues.
The most the workforce center can do is pass along phone numbers and information on how to file a claim online.
“If we put too much of our time to work with unemployment, we are getting away from our mission here,” Carr said.
Finding a fix
Kansas Department of Labor, which oversees the state’s unemployment insurance program, is well aware of the long waits, communications director Megan Ingmire said.
To file unemployment claims — which those receiving benefits must do weekly — Kansans must either file online or use the phone system. For people with special circumstances or questions, the phone line is the only place for help.
A combination of higher unemployment numbers, a federal program that extended benefits by 13 weeks and the state’s switch to debit cards all have added to caller volume, Ingmire said.
The department has hired nine more customer service representatives, and some are working at night and on weekends to answer calls. Currently, the Topeka-based call center has 85 customer service representatives. The goal is to return calls within 24 hours.
“We really are working diligently and as hard and as fast as possible so that we can answer everyone’s questions and meet their needs,” Ingmire said.
The department is also looking to update its equipment. Right now, the phone queue can’t handle more than 200 people at one time. That means the 201st caller — and anyone after that — gets kicked off the system.
The department also is looking at new technology that would allow customer service representatives to more easily pull up clients’ records.
Kansas is doing better than most states, Ingmire said. In October, the Kansas unemployment rate was at 4.5 percent, which is well below the national average of 6.1 percent.
Last month, the state paid out $42 million in benefits. The state’s unemployment trust fund, which employers pay into, has $615 million for the next year.
Still, with a bleak economy and the likelihood of unemployment numbers increasing, Ingmire couldn’t say when wait times will decrease.
“It might be a while until it gets better. We are doing the best we can. We encourage callers to be patient, and we will respond to them as soon as we possibly can,” Ingmire said.
For many of the clients coming into the Lawrence Workforce Center, patience is in short supply. The long waits have sparked threats of violence from some callers, Carr said.
As for Meyers, who has been searching for work since her job as operations manager of the Lawrence-based NewsTV Crews evaporated, she was able to get a direct line from the workforce center and resolve the mix-up with her unemployment benefits.
And the memory of the long wait is something she has filed away for future calls.
“It is a matter of now knowing that I’m dealing with a slow bureaucracy and just not letting that turn me into something with teeth and claws,” she said.