The Growing Unemployment Line

Bill Scher

Front page of the Daily Hampshire Gazette here in Northampton, MA offers some stark news. Unemployment lines have more than doubled since last year in the Western MA counties of Hampshire and Franklin, and the state unemployment offices don’t have the staff yet to deal with it:

When she lost her job in the local building trades, Sarah McCoy knew she’d have to tune up a resume and scour job listings.

What the single mother of two teenagers didn’t expect were the delays she faced in filing her claim for jobless benefits.

“It is what it is, as far as getting laid off,” McCoy said Thursday. “But to not be able to apply is a problem. … Does anybody get how frustrating this is?”

In the Valley, she and others have been seeking help from offices run by the Franklin-Hampshire Career Centers.

The line of unemployed people forms early these days outside the Northampton office at 178 Industrial Drive. But because the office has only one unemployment assurance specialist, people face waits for in-person help as well as telephone contact.

This time of year is historically busy for the career centers, as construction firms begin seasonal layoffs. The falling economy has intensified the mismatch between need and staffing, pushing waits up dramatically in the last month.

“We’re not dealing with normal times,” said Michael Truckey, the Franklin-Hampshire program’s executive director.

The career centers in Greenfield and Northampton received visits from 561 new customers in October, a 120 percent increase over the 254 who came for the first time in October 2007.

Many mornings this month, a line has been forming by 8 a.m. outside the Northampton office, half an hour before it opens. … Though claims can be taken over the state’s phone system … some newly jobless people prefer to have a face-to-face interview. Many have no doubt given up on the telephone delays that hit 1 hour and 47 minutes last week, Truckey said.

State officials told the Gazette that the call centers would get additional staffing this month and next to cut down the phone delays. But Massachusetts, like 40 other states, is facing budget shortfalls. Trying to put the proverbial fire out at its unemployment call centers means less resources to put out other fires.

A new Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report chronicles the stress that state governments are under, and how its hurting our fellow citizens:

* Public health programs: At least 17 states have implemented cuts that will affect low-income children’s or families’ eligibility for health insurance or reduce their access to health care services. For example, Rhode Island eliminated health coverage for 1,000 low-income parents; New Jersey cut funds for charity care in hospitals; and California and Utah are reducing the number of services covered. Additionally, the governor in California has proposed cuts that, when fully phased in, will cause more than 400,000 adults to be denied health coverage.

* Programs for the elderly and disabled: At least 15 states are cutting medical, rehabilitative, home care, or other services needed by low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities, or significantly increasing the cost of these services. For example, Florida has frozen reimbursements to nursing homes and relaxed staffing standards and Rhode Island is requiring low-income elderly people to pay more for adult daycare. Arizona eliminated temporary health insurance for people with serious medical problems.

* K-12 education: At least 16 states are cutting K-12 and early education; For example: Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have each cut school aid by an estimated $95 or more per pupil; Nevada eliminated funds for gifted and talented programs; Rhode Island is eliminating early education funding for 550 children; and Massachusetts is reducing funding for a number of early care programs.

* Colleges and universities: At least 21 states have implemented cuts to public colleges and universities. The result is cuts in faculty and staff and (in more than half of those states) tuition increases of 5 percent to 15 percent. Rhode Island students are facing mid-year tuition hikes on top of tuition increases enacted at the beginning of the academic year.

* State workforce: At least 20 states are reducing their state workforces. Workforce reductions often result in reduced access to services residents need. They also add to states’ woes by contracting the state economy. New Jersey is reducing its workforce by 2,000 employees through early retirement, lay-offs and attrition; Virginia is laying off 567 workers, freezing hiring and delaying a planned state employee salary increase; in Kentucky, the public defender will eliminate 10 percent of positions and decline certain types of cases; hiring freezes have been instituted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington.

This is why its imperative that any new economic stimulus package includes direct aid to state and local governments which, as Robert Kuttner noted in his recent Boston Globe column, are not allowed to have annual budget deficits.

Our federal government has that flexibility, for good reason. This indisputably the time to use it, to stave off the pain currently being inflicted at the state and local level, as well to invest in our long-term needs.

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