New Alabama unemployment helpline drawing criticism

Updated: Feb. 18, 2021 at 10:55 AM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Suddenly losing your job, your paycheck, and your way to support your family can feel like being on a rollercoaster. For a Birmingham woman who’s unemployed and wants to remain anonymous, she says dealing with the state’s unemployment claims process is starting to feel like trying to get on one.

“It puts me in mind of the longest amusement park line,” she says. “You’re in line for a ride and every time you turn the corner you think you’re a lot closer, but the closer you get the further away you are.”

She lost her job in November, and started filing for unemployment each week in December. She says because of her job, she has to provide some extra verification to the state to qualify, and says at first she was able to reach someone at the Department of Labor who looked up her case and assured her someone would call her back.

As she continued to file each week, still waiting for her first check, she got a new message on the state’s website telling her if she didn’t provide the extra information, her claims would be denied.

“In December, it had an automated system with a number of options for you to pick from, the new recording had only one thing to say which is “all time slots have been issued for today, please call back after 5 for a timeslot for tomorrow. I tried everyday for a week. One particular day I called 33 times in 5 minutes, and did not successfully get a timeslot. Now I’m in a situation where I basically, everyday at 5 o’clock, I compete with I don’t know how many individuals to get a timeslot.”

“The demand for those callbacks, it’s just enormous,” reports Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison.

The labor department acknowledges they don’t have enough staffing to handle all of the calls they’re getting, but say their new system of going from in-person appointments to phone appointments that started in January allows them to handle 600 calls a day, when their limit used to be 350-400.

“Honestly that’s more than we’ve ever been able to do, but the simple fact remains the demand outweighs the supply for that resource,” explains Hutchison.

The labor department says the federal formula that pays for their staffing is based on the unemployment rate, but lags up to 2 years behind. Meaning they’re facing record numbers of people needing help with funding based on the historically low unemployment rate of a year ago.

“We’re doing everything we can to maximize our resources.” Hutchison says. “If you’re not getting through, please keep trying, we know it’s frustrating.”

The unemployed worker we spoke with says she’s to the point of hoping her claim is denied so she can go through the appeals process and maybe speak to a real person then.

“I have to operate from a standpoint of---unemployment, though I qualify, is not a resource to me in my situation. And I’ve got to find some other way to survive this.”

The state says they were paying benefits to more than 220,000 Alabamians a week back in May, now that number is under 100,000.

The ADOL offered to look into this unemployed worker’s case specifically, but she asked to remain anonymous and says she believes the entire system needs re-evaluating.

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