As unemployment grows so does Pennsylvania's agency to handle claims

Unemployment is a growth business.

Economists are forecasting that Friday’s employment report will show that 500,000 people lost their jobs in December, bringing the total job loss for 2008 to nearly 2.5 million. Some doomsayers see an additional 2 million jobs disappearing in 2009.

Such job destruction is straining the safety net for the newly unemployed. The heavy volume of benefits claims in North Carolina caused its Web site to crash twice this week. New York’s system was swamped Monday when as many as 10,000 people an hour tried to log in.

So far, Pennsylvania’s system has avoided meltdown. But it has had “capacity issues,” said David Smith, spokesman for the Department of Labor & Industry. The agency has fast-tracked an information technology project to boost the capacity and processing power of its mainframe in Harrisburg, he said. And it’s adding a call center.

Pennsylvania began monitoring its system daily  in the fall. Until December, the number of new weekly claims for jobless benefits remained below 20,000. Every week of December, claims surpassed 20,000.

Normally, the agency has about 600 workers processing claims and answering questions from the those who’ve lost their jobs. It’s added 300 temporary workers with plans for 200 more.

In the bad old days, you’d go to the unemployment office if you lost your job to file for benefits. Those offices are long gone; the last one closed in 2001. In these bad news days, you file a new claim over the phone or the Internet.

The call-in hours for the toll-free line of 1-888-313-7284 are Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. The Sunday hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Be prepared to get a busy signal. Call volumes are heaviest on Mondays and Tuesdays and most mornings. (I called 10 times in 2 hours Tuesday afternoon and got a busy signal each time.) The department advises calling later in the week and later in the day.

If you can, file your claim online. It can be done 24 hours a day at the agency's Web site here.

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