By DAVID KLEPPER
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) â¿¿ Mark Simmons began dialing Rhode Island's unemployment call center at 8 a.m. on a recent Monday. He got a busy signal. He tried 67 more times before the automated system picked up and told him that because of heavy call volume, he should try back another time.
People applying for unemployment benefits in this state with the nation's highest jobless rate must wait on hold an average of 51 minutes. Not only that, but some of those interviewed by The Associated Press say that their benefits are often weeks late and that when they try to speak to a human about the problem, they're referred to a computer.
"This is about whether I can buy groceries or whether I'm going to be evicted," said Simmons, a 42-year-old Army veteran who has gotten by on part-time wages and unemployment since losing his job at a Providence bookstore in 2011. "I sit in my apartment, dialing the number again and again, when I'm supposed to be looking for jobs. It's like, what do I pay taxes for?"While many states are well on the way to recovery 2Â½ years after the end of the Great Recession, financially ailing Rhode Island stands apart. And it inadvertently made things more difficult for its unemployed with an automated system that can't handle the demand, and a remarkably ill-timed decision to lay off scores of workers at the call center. State officials acknowledge the problems and say they are rehiring staff and have upgraded the automated system. But the mess has illustrated how slowly and painfully recovery has come to Rhode Island. With a population of just over 1 million, Rhode Island has 57,800 jobless people and is tied with Nevada for the highest unemployment in the nation, at 10.2 percent, as it seeks to reverse a long, slow decline that began well before the recession.