By DAVID KLEPPERPROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) â¿¿ The top official at Rhode Island's labor department told lawmakers Tuesday that his agency is working to address long telephone wait times and benefit backlogs in the state's unemployment system. Charles Fogarty, director of the Department of Labor and Training, said individuals calling the state's unemployment call center faced an average wait time of 42 minutes as of last week â¿¿ down from 51 minutes just a few weeks ago. He said the problems are the result of the state's stubbornly high unemployment rate and recent layoffs at his department prompted by a loss in federal funding. "No organization could maintain customer service in the short term if they lost one-third of their workforce," Fogarty told the Senate Finance Committee. "... We are doing everything we can." Fogarty says customer service is improving thanks to technological upgrades and the recent rehiring of 33 staffers. But he warned the problems may continue because many of the call center's positions aren't funded past September and future funding is uncertain. Lawmakers on the panel questioned Fogarty about the problems during a budget hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse. Sen. Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, said he's received several calls from unemployed constituents frustrated with the delays at the agency. "I have to believe they have a plan," Pearson told The Associated Press following the hearing. "It's something we need to continue working on. They certainly don't have an easy job." Rhode Island's 10.2 percent unemployment rate is tied with Nevada's as the highest in the nation. During the 2007-09 recession, the federal government gave states extra money to beef up unemployment office staffing, but the dollars have dried up as the jobs picture has improved across the country. Following cutbacks in federal funding, nearly half of the states planned to eliminate more than 1,200 unemployment agency jobs last fall, according to a survey by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Michigan, for example, laid off 400 unemployment workers.
Last summer, faced with a $3 million cut in federal aid, Rhode Island's labor department laid off 67 workers, including about one-third of the 150 people at the call center. Telephone wait times jumped to more than two hours, according to the union representing the laid-off workers.While the automated phone and online system takes claim information from people filing for benefits, it's up to state workers to process and approve the claims. When too many people call in at once, the phone system becomes overwhelmed.