By Dave Rogers
---- — NEWBURYPORT — With the state’s unemployment rate rising to 7.2 percent in recent weeks, the number of Bay Staters seeking desperately needed benefits is ever growing. More than two months after the state acknowledged it was having problems with its new unemployment benefits computer system, UI Online, affected residents, including many in the Greater Newburyport area, are still struggling to receive benefits.
The ongoing computer problems have drawn the attention of local state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, who earlier this week complained to Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Joanne F. Goldstein.
In a letter dated Sept. 17, O’Connor Ives wrote that the issue required immediate attention and the state needed to hold the company it hired, Deloitte Consulting, financially responsible for what she called serious technical failings.
“Taxpayer dollars should not be expended to pay for mistakes with their product. There should be an immediate stop-gap remedy so that residents can obtain their anticipated benefits during this time when Deloitte Consulting is attempting to correct their systems,” said O’Connor Ives in a separate statement.
Many claimants have expressed frustration, saying they could not file claims electronically through the state and that it was nearly impossible to reach an agent on the phone to resolve issues.
According to O’Connor Ives, her office has recently received about a dozen calls from Greater Newburyport residents who initially tried, but were unable to access the state’s unemployment system. The results have been disastrous. One constituent reported she has not received any unemployment compensation since the end of June.
“This added economic stress has forced one of my constituents to pay his mortgage with a credit card, while another woman faced the possibility of withdrawing her child from school due to an inability to pay for the services,” the senator wrote to Goldstein.
“Residents in my district and throughout the commonwealth cannot wait another month or another week,” O’Connor Ives said.
In response to O’Connor Ives’ letter, Goldstein said that while the vast majority of claimants are successfully interfacing with the system, his office understands some may be experiencing challenges or specific questions on their individual claims.
“We understand and respect that the functioning of the system is personal and rightfully so,” Goldstein said. “System success is irrelevant to the claimant who is without benefits or couldn’t reach a claims representative, and even one claimant experiencing a problem is one too many. We are committed to ensuring every eligible claimant gets paid.”
Goldstein went on to say that with any overhaul of an IT system so large and complex, her office was aware that some issues may arise.
“That is why the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) included a warranty period in its contract with Deloitte and why DUA has held Deloitte accountable throughout this launch,” Goldstein said.
According to the DUA, since UI Online went live July 1 — replacing an outdated and fragmented three-decade-old system — approximately 115,000 of UI claimants are successfully requesting their continued claims on a weekly basis. Of those, approximately 96 percent completed through “self-service” without any waiting or needing to speak with someone. Similar to before the launch, DUA’s Constituent Services Unit provides support to elected officials who may have constituents with questions about their claim. For many calls or questions DUA may be receiving now, it is often because of individual claim issues, not system related issues.
In a separate interview, O’Connor Ives said she recognized the complexity of overhauling and launching a new unemployment benefits system. But that did not excuse the state from doing more to ensure no one fell through the cracks.
“So long as people that are relying on their compensation are still going to get it — with some sort of temporary strategy to make sure that it happens. I just need to know what the plan is,” O’Connor Ives said.