A group of people in winter coats walked in a circle in front of the Pa. Career Link office on Spring Garden Street on Monday, calling the unemployment compensation hotline on their cell phones.
Or — trying to call.
Protesters upset over busy signals at the state’s Department of Labor have taken to the picket lines in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Unemployment Project says when callers to the state’s unemployment benefits hotline don’t get a busy signal, they get a three-hour wait.
Social worker David Wengert, who read off the number to the crowd, was laid off in June. He got the busy signal when he tried to find out what had happened to three missed checks.
“People receiving unemployment like myself, it’s stressful. And it’s already stressful enough that you don’t have a job and you’re looking for work,” he said. He explained that he eventually went to a job placement office, where employees called the Department of Labor through their own back channels to solve his problem.
The state of Pennsylvania has brought back 117 of 135 call center workers put on unpaid leave. Spokeswoman Sara Goulet said that claimants should consider the hotlines the emergency room of the unemployment system.
“When you are first sick, you would normally try some self-help — aspirin, rest. Much like going online to uc.pa.gov to look for answers and/or reading thoroughly all information sent to you by the [unemployment compensation] office,” she said. “If you are sick and continue to not feel well, then you would go to the ER. … And, by claimants who could self-help using the phones, lines are clogged for those who truly need to speak to someone.”
Federal assistance set to expire
The Philadelphia contingent was also on the street to protest the pending expiration of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which pays for a longer period of unemployment benefits.
Carmelo Del Valle justified an extension by the fact that he paid into the program throughout 25 years as a forklift operator. He has been looking for work for over a year and hopes an extension could carry him into the spring, “because that’s when most of the work comes back up.”
“I just need a little extra help for now,” he said.