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Agency speeds up jobless claims, not phone calls

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The good news: The state Department of Workforce Solutions has sped up its processing and payment of claims for unemployment benefits.

The bad news: The department got even slower in the final months of 2013 in assisting the jobless and employers over the telephone.

That’s according to the department’s latest performance report card issued by the Legislative Finance Committee. The report card covers the second quarter of the state’s 2014 fiscal year. That’s October, November and December.

Key state agencies are required under the Accountability in Government Act to set performance targets and report actual performance to the LFC, which then releases a quarterly report card for each agency.

It took an average of 68 minutes for a caller to complete a transaction with the unemployment insurance call center in the second quarter of fiscal 2014, according to the report card for Workforce Solutions.

That was up from 44.5 minutes in the previous quarter, 36 minutes in all of fiscal 2013 and 15 minutes in fiscal 2012.

The steady increase in transaction times for the call center has frustrated the jobless and employers, as well as state legislators.

Call center transaction times began climbing in January 2013 with implementation of a $48 million online computer system for employers to pay unemployment taxes and for the jobless to make claims. The system can be difficult for users to navigate, the LFC has reported.

Workforce Solutions said calls related to a partial federal government shutdown, seasonable agricultural workers and the end of extended federal jobless benefits on Dec. 31 contributed to the increase in the average transaction time for the call center in the second quarter.

“These three factors generated a significant number of calls into the UI Operations Center, which inflated all of the factors used in determining the average transaction time,” a department spokeswoman said in an email.

As for the good news, the LFC report card said Workforce Solutions, in the second quarter of fiscal 2014, issued determinations within 21 days for 76 percent of eligible unemployment insurance claims.

The rate was 70 percent in fiscal 2013 but had dipped to 55 percent in the first quarter of fiscal 2014.

Part of the cause for the drop was a backlog of claims created by implementation of the new computer system, according to Workforce Solutions. The department also said it had discovered that some work on claims determinations wasn’t being done based upon the age of claims.

Also on the good news side: 82 percent of all first payments of jobless benefits were made within 14 days after the waiting week required before collecting benefits. That was up from 71 percent in the previous quarter.

In the week that ended March 15, there were 1,056 initial claims for unemployment benefits and 16,899 in continuing claims.

There was the fewest initial claims in nearly six months and the fewest continuing claims since the start of 2014.

Budget increase

The Department of Workforce Solutions is largely funded by federal money, but the department will receive $11.4 million in state general fund money for the fiscal year beginning July 1, up from $3.5 million in fiscal 2014.

Most of the increase in general fund money will go toward operation and upkeep of the department’s new computer system. Some of the general fund money will also offset a decline in federal funding.

The 2015 budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Susana Martinez also appropriates $3.9 million to satisfy the bill that Workforce Solutions owed the Department of Information Technology for toll-free phone services for its call center.

Martinez vetoed budget language that would have required Workforce Solutions to seek competitive bids from private companies for toll-free services in an effort to lower its phone bills.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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