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Don't Hold Your Breath For That Unemployment Check

Alyssa Rosenberg is a correspondent for Government Executive:

Just when you thought being unemployed couldn't get any worse, The New York Times is reporting today that states are running out of the money they need to pay increasing unemployment benefits tabs. But many people haven't even been able to get that far: The hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers flooding government workforce offices have overwhelmed an unemployment system that wasn't built to handle a recession this bad, or this long--causing extensive delays in people receiving their benefits.

573,000 people have filed their preliminary applications for unemployment benefits, according to the Times piece, the largest number in 26 years, and almost 50,000 more than economists--much less state processing offices--anticipated. In Maine, there were not enough employees to answer 120,000 calls to unemployment centers during the first week of December alone. Rhode Island, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country, has seen its processing time for an application go from 14 days to three weeks. In Western Massachusetts, the number of visits to unemployment centers is up 120 percent over last year, and the state is keeping its unemployment help lines open on Saturdays to try to cut down on busy signals and wait lines after a 30 percent spike in calls in October.

Though many states have transformed their unemployment systems in recent years, they were not prepared for this month's rush. "Obviously, they structured it assuming a certain level of unemployment claims nothing like the level we're seeing now," says Alan Charney, program director at USAction, a grassroots organizing group that works on economic issues in 24 states. "You can imagine what's going to happen when people hear the funds are out of money: They're going to want to call."

If history is any lesson, unemployed workers shouldn't be expecting shorter lines any time soon. When a recession hit in 1991, cuts in the Labor department budget left states short the money they needed to hire additional workers to process rising unemployment claims. And the state-level agencies that did get additional money got their funding only after they were already swamped with new claims and experiencing serious delays.

There is, however, good news for one group of employees: With lengthening lines at unemployment offices and on phone lines, there's a mini-boom in jobs at state-level workforce agencies as governments try to meet the heightened demand. Many states are staffing up their unemployment offices, even as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that 20 states are cutting their government workforces. Pennsylvania is nearly doubling its unemployment staff from 600 permanent workers to 1,100 employees, some of whom are coming on board on a temporary basis. New Jersey brought on a new wave of unemployment workers in October and November, bringing the number of claims reviewers from 150 to 194. And California, which is cutting 10,000 temporary state workers, exempted unemployment staffers both to cope with demand and avoid losing federal Social Security funding.

But even if a new crop of unemployment officers get benefits flowing faster, they won't have the power to stretch available funds any further. "While unemployment was supposed to tide people over during the two, or three-quarter period, people are going to be unemployed for a much longer period of time," Charney says. "It's really going to drown the unemployment system as a whole both in terms of its operations and its ability to provide a safety net."

--Alyssa Rosenberg