Early birds get jobless benefits

Unemployed people queued up early outside The Career Place in Woburn to boost their chances of being able to sign up for benefits.
Unemployed people queued up early outside The Career Place in Woburn to boost their chances of being able to sign up for benefits.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

WOBURN — The doors didn’t open until 8:30 a.m., but at 7:45 there already was a long line of people in heavy coats fending off the morning cold outside The Career Place. An employee came out at 7:45 and posted a sign-up list.

“It’s just like Black Friday,” joked Karen Russell of Stoneham. 

The first 40 on the list — the limit of how many can be seen in a single day — would have the opportunity to apply for unemployment benefits, or for an extension, with a claims representative from the Department of Unemployment Assistance. Ten didn’t make the cut and wandered away, and a few others straggled in close to 8 or 8:30 to find they were out of luck.

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The list would be tweaked again, with military veterans given first priority (a policy that drew no objections from those in line), but the order was otherwise first-come, first-served for the next eight hours. Those who arrived as early as before 6 a.m. could be out by noon, but some of those who made the cut later wouldn’t be seen until nearly 5 p.m.

In Woburn, sign-up days are Thursday and Friday. The days and numbers may change, but it is a scene played out in Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell, and at other unemployment centers across the region.

The system draws shrugs, smirks, and eye-rolls from those in the line, who said that phoning in to register for benefits is even more difficult.

Dave Tuttle of Reading, who has gone through other layoffs during his 45-year career in high tech, said the process has become almost impossible.

“It makes the [Registry of Motor Vehicles] look like an efficient organization,” said Tuttle, who made the cut at number 39 on his fifth trip to the Woburn center, and eventually registered for unemployment at 4:30 p.m. He said he had also tried phone-in registration about 20 times.

Aaron McCue, a roofer from Lowell who arrived at 6:55 a.m., made the list at number 26.

“I was told to get here at 7 o’clock, and there’d be a line already,” said McCue, who figured he wouldn’t see the counselor until the afternoon.

Some who made the list wait inside, while others who were far down the list chose to leave and return later. Joan Slater, a catering chef from Arlington who signed up at number 35, weighed whether she’d even come back for her late-afternoon appointment.

“I need to pick up my son at 2:30,” said Slater, who was considering signing up by phone. “If I can’t get through today, I may try Alewife [The Career Source on Alewife Parkway in Cambridge] tomorrow.”

Imelda Kenny was one of those who got shut out. The event specialist from Haverhill came to sign up for an extension, but was number 46.

“I thought I was at 30, but people were already [in the building lobby],” said Kenny, who has also come to the center for workforce training, and had high praise for the classes that teach new skills. Nonetheless, it’s been tough being unemployed, she said.

“The whole process has been very frustrating,” she said.

With an estimated 234,300 people, or 6.7 percent, unemployed statewide in December, there’s plenty of exasperation to go around.

“It is frustrating, and you can’t blame them,” said Kathy Andre, manager of library and workshop resources at The Career Place in Woburn, who said she’ll sometimes see people calling to register on their cellphones as they wait for their in-person interview. “If you didn’t collect a check for nine weeks, what would you do?”

According to Tuttle, who has timed it on his telephone, it takes 4½ minutes “to fight through the voice/keypad-response menus, entering your language choice, Social Security number, and your birth year, before the system transfers you to a recording that begins ‘Because of an unexpected volume of calls, we are unable to answer your call at this time.’ ”

Tuttle, a member of Reading’s Community Planning and Development Commission, said, “I have to think that there’s some straightforward way [to improve it].”

The good news for the unemployed is that online registration is coming, and that after a number of factors that pushed volume up in recent weeks, there is a hope that it will recede this month.

Many states are moving to the online option, including New Mexico, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

“This is the wave of the future,” said Michelle Amante, acting director of the Department of Unemployment Assistance. “We recognize the fact that customers are frustrated right now. On the call center side, we’re taking between 28,000 and 35,000 phone calls a week. We’re doing our absolute best to keep up with those calls. We have over 150,000 people claiming, which is a very high volume for us.”

To deal with the increased number of calls, the department has pulled staffers away from other duties, hired additional help, and planned to offer overtime.

The department prefers that people phone to register, she said, and in recent days it has extended call time by two hours, now available from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

After hearing about the length of time it takes to get through the initial telephone prompts, Amante said she has staffers addressing that issue as well.

She noted that January is historically the department’s busiest month, with the holidays over and many weather-dependent and seasonal employees filing for benefits. With unemployment benefits extensions granted early last month, it created “that horrible perfect storm scenario where it’s all coming at once.”

Alice Sweeney, acting director of the Department of Career Services, said career centers handle walk-in registration differently.

Some give out numbers for that day and the next day. She noted that while waiting, people can take advantage of career center services.

“The career center is there to assist them to find a job,” she said.